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Ep. 106 Why Intelligent Design (ID) Will Be the Public Choice of the Natural Sciences

Anticipating his forthcoming interview with Winston Ewert, Bob explains why the Intelligent Design movement will be to the natural sciences, what the Public Choice school in economics is to the social sciences. Bob predicts that the explanation for the observed complexity of the universe will ultimately be pushed back into the structure of mathematics itself.

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Chief Economist at infineo, and Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute.


  1. Clint on 03/07/2020 at 12:12 AM

    Why Intelligent Design is the Keynsianism of the natural science: It asserts that nothing complex or good can happen without a central planner, and it structures it’s arguments in such a way that beg the question and assumes they’re always correct.

    Like Krugman saying “The recession must have been even worse when we thought,” the intelligent design proponent says “Well that thing was also designed” when any counterexample is offered. Even if they have to fall back to saying that mathematics itself was designed.

    If we had no knowledge of it’s history, we could conclude Mt Rushmore and determined it is designed by comparing it to natural mountain formations. But in the ID worldview, there are no natural mountain formations. They are also designed. While the naturalist has tools to determine that Mt. Rushmore was in fact designed, the ID proponent does not. Because literally everything was designed in their worldview, they should, if they were logically consistent say: “Well, I know Mt. Rushmore was designed, but I have no idea if it was designed by a person or if God created it that way, because everything is designed.”

  2. Not bob on 03/07/2020 at 5:18 AM

    +1 to Clint. Your own counter arguments seem to refute the entire idea of ID, Bob. I believe the survivor bias (or is it coming into existence bias?) and infinite attempts theory.

    Plus, ID is also just kicking the can down the road: who created the creator? First mover problem.

    As somebody who’s dabbled in creating video games: you’d be surprised how complex the emergent behavior from just a handful of simple rules can become very quickly. You don’t need to plan much, but in the end (with a little tuning, which evolution could easily do) it really feels like somebody thought about this a lot and designed it ahead of time.

  3. Richard on 03/07/2020 at 8:00 AM

    Clint, you seem to have missed the point. The idea of detecting design is predicated on distinguishing it from seemingly random processes, not saying that seemingly random processes are not random – even though they may not be. The central claim – more or less – is that it is possible to specify criteria for when we would agree design is present or not. Bob mentioned this in the show with the poker analogy for ‘specified complexity’. An event is considered to have specified complexity if it’s contingent (i.e., not necessary), if it’s complex (hence low probability), and if it exhibits an independently given pattern. Probability is insufficient by itself, so not everything qualifies as being designed by these criteria. You say naturalists have tools to determine if Mt Rushmore was designed or not – what tools are you referring to? ID proponents say Mt Rushmore has specified complexity – the sculpture is not a necessary feature of mountains, it is complex so very unlikely to have arisen by chance, and it has a clear pattern and meaning beyond the rock itself. There is no claim about the designer, just the presence of intelligence in the design.

  4. Ben_The_Physicist on 03/07/2020 at 1:19 PM

    The darwinists whitewash irreduceable complexity with ‘randomness’.

    Calling it into question with the label ‘intelligent design’ is a tactical error, since it /implies/ a religious God.

    My position is “this is just too deep and weird for us to understand and explain now”.

    Glad you mentioned fractals. This is important.

  5. Gregory on 03/07/2020 at 4:21 PM

    The supposed conclusion of “Intelligent Design” is a starting assumption of all economic theory. All economies are “human-made.” Yet the theory of “Intelligent Design” (IDT) is explicitly not about human-made things; it is about the origins of life and information.

    The Discovery Institute used to have a section of their summer program on “Intelligent Design in the Humanities and Social Sciences.” But they shut it down when they realized they could not produce a coherent IDT in those fields. Anti-Darwinism (which is fine as far as that goes) doesn’t at the same time constitute a positive IDT in HSS.

    Ideological Darwinism in economics isn’t a major issue. Economics is, of course, not just about “blind chance”; no one would argue about that. Yet nowhere in this podcast is “evolutionary economics” (Nelson & Winter, Hodgson, Knudsen, et al.) confronted, which is a significant branch of contemporary economics. So the elephant is still standing in the room, unaddressed.

    “There is Intelligence in all we see around us … evidence of Design is all over the place.” – Bob Murphy

    In the case of economies, we can study the designers & design processes. Yet in IDT, neither the Designer, nor the Designing Process, can be discussed “strictly scientifically”. IDT avoids the who, when, where, & how questions, to simply conclude something “is or is not Designed.” That’s a very weak “scientific” theory. Design universalism is an ideology that should be warned against as well.

    “this is completely straightforward … who could possibly deny the legitimacy…?” – Bob Murphy

    Most natural scientists, including Christians, reject IDT. The BioLogos Foundation and Peaceful Science are two sources you should check out. These are openly “evangelical” and also both strongly & consistently anti-IDT.

    “The only people who believe in ID are Christians.” – Bob Murphy

    No, a few Muslims, and Jews also; Abrahamic monotheists. Surely, IDT is biased against atheists. One cannot be an atheist, and accept “Intelligent Design.” It simply doesn’t make sense.

    If you deny this, please come up with a single person’s name of an atheist who accepts ID. Berlinski is “warm, but distant” from IDT; he is rather anti-evolution, more specifically, anti-Darwinian evolution. “I think you confuse an evolution skeptic with an intelligent design advocate.” – Stephen Barr

    Btw, Winston Ewert & I met at the DI’s Summer Program in Seattle. He couldn’t answer the simple questions I calmly, patiently, and respectfully put to him. Would you on your podcast?

    • Denis on 03/08/2020 at 12:21 PM

      You said “ “The only people who believe in ID are Christians.” – Bob Murphy

      The actual context of the quote was more along the lines of “people will say that ‘the only people who believe in ID are Christians – and a few people from other religions too’ but actually…”

      I’m not going back to find the verbatim quote to check it. Having just finished the episode I’m sure you’ve misrepresented what he has said.

      • Robert Murphy on 03/10/2020 at 4:16 AM

        Yeah, for what it’s worth, I too suspected that that quotation was misleading about what my position was, but I didn’t have time to go look it up.

        • Gregory on 03/15/2020 at 8:36 PM

          Yes, it was a clipped quote. The larger point remains valid. As a theory, “Intelligent Design Theory” is implicitly anti-atheist. An atheist who believed in “Intelligent Design” would by definition not actually be an atheist, since ID implies a Designer = God. That massive point (which qualifies it as unteachable in public schools) trumps what you say is “misleading” in what I quoted, whereas to me, as an Abrahamic monotheist, the entire IDM is intentionally & repeatedly “misleading” people by double-talking between “human design” and “Divine Design”. But I doubt you’ll admit that or answer to what is so obvious to non-IDists, so focussed as they are on IDT for apologetics.

  6. Eric Holloway on 03/09/2020 at 4:11 PM

    @Gregory, Nagel is a prominent atheist philosopher who thinks there is merit to ID, though supposedly he does not accept the ‘positive case’ himself. That being said, he thinks there must be some sort of teleological force guiding the universe, per his book ‘Mind and Cosmos’, which IMHO is the same thing as ID.

    As for humanities and social sciences, ID is extremely relevant there, since the whole enterprise is based on intelligent agents and the designs they create.

    @Clint distinguishing randomness from non randomness is exactly what ID is all about, e.g. comparing Mt. Rushmore to other mountains and seeing is strongly deviates from what natural processes generate. You have precisely summarized the ID method in a nutshell. It is not ‘everything is designed’ as you mischaracterize it. ID concepts such as the explanatory filter, CSI, and active information can be used practically to:
    – distinguish malicious internet traffic from normal traffic
    – differentiate real patterns in data from coincidences (very useful for machine learning)
    – calculate alignment free similarity between different genomes (detect genetic engineering?!)

    Additionally, the mathematical elements of ID are very mainstream, being drawn from information theory, statistics and computer science. One can even find precursors to ideas such as CSI and the conservation of information in these fields, such as Leonid Levin’s proof of independence conservation.

    So, bottom line is ID theory has a rigorous, mainstream mathematical foundation that can be applied in many other areas besides the traditional biological history debate about the nature of evolution. Thus, there is no reason to arbitrarily decide the one area the math fails to work is when it comes to biological history.

    • Gregory on 03/15/2020 at 9:23 PM

      “As for humanities and social sciences, ID is extremely relevant there, since the whole enterprise is based on intelligent agents and the designs they create.” – Eric Holloway

      Yes, real “design theory” is already widespread in humanities and social sciences. But that is explicitly quite different from the so-called “Intelligent Design” theory (IDT) from Discovery Institute. This is quite a simple recognition that any sincere & trustworthy person will admit. I don’t know why it is hard for you to do so.

      Unfortunately, the Discovery Institute hides or obscures the history of “design thinking” & “design theory” that differs from their ideology, which they parade as “strictly natural science”. As an example of this, I met Brian Miller & Michael Behe a few months ago at a local apologetics event that a friend invited me to. I calmly & patiently asked both of them to distinguish “human design”, i.e. real design theory & design thinking, from “Divine Design”. They refused to answer directly, with Behe reverting to “I’m a simple biochemist”, then the organizers ushered us to the door.

      You make claims about “humanities and social sciences” as an outsider (you’re not trained in social sciences or humanities, but rather computing & informatics), which you cannot back up. Nobody inside humanities & social sciences will listen to you for a second, since you and the DI won’t actually address real design theories or design thinking. Would Bob Murphy also make a claim that contradicts what the DI says about IDT?

      In fact, John G. West was given an opportunity in 2013 to do just what you presume is possible. Yet he refused the offer of Ball State President Jo Ann Gora in 2013: “Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses.” Yet West lashed out at Gora for rejecting IDT as a “strictly scientific theory”, and demanded IDT “as a scientific theory in science classes”. This puts the lie to your absurd outsider claim, since at least West was once a professor of social science, now turned propagandist for the DI, and he refused the generous offer from President Gora with vitriol.

      I’m not sure if you realize how much damage to Christianity this approach has caused and is still causing, except that IDT is used successfully as apologetics to anti-science lower educated Americans. The people promoting IDT, like Bob Murphy in this strange podcast, are largely simple-minded evangelicals (as Dembski admitted) and zealots, not profound or sincere thinkers to be taken seriously.

      Here’s the catch: If the leaders of the DI were to finally address real, credible “design theory”, that would serve immediately to destroy the IDM, because it would require them to admit they actually CAN study “the designer(s)” and the “design process”, which is what design thinking does, but IDists refuse to do. Sorry, Eric, that you are incoherent and wishful thinking in your requests. Please become a better representative of your faith in the future.

  7. Marko on 03/10/2020 at 7:11 AM

    The fact you quoted Steven Landsburg, made me re-read chapters 1 and 3 of the book you quoted “The Big Questions”, and I think his conclusions are much more charitable than yours and I will explain why. I will go step by step and I think these conclusions should make you fall off the chair. It is true that you could synthesize his thinking that the Universe is the theorem of the math, but that goes against your claim, not in favor.

    Step 1: Landsburg disproves the Intelligent Designer, you should re-read both full chapters 1 and 3, I am just quoting the essential part from chapter 3 that talks about Richard Dawkins: and the fact that ID proves too much:

    “… So if your argument is that anything as complex as life requires a designer, then you must be prepared to conclude that arithmetic required a designer. That’s devastating, because almost nobody is prepared to believe that arithmetic was designed. If God designed arithmetic, he must have made some choices along the way; if you are not making choices, you are not designing. But a choice is not a choice unless you could have done differently, which suggests that, for example, God could have arranged matters so that two plus two makes five. And at least in my experience, even people who claim to be very religious have trouble swallowing that much omnipotence…”

    Step 2: My step. If we observe the concrete results of the Designer in this World, we could see not just Fibonacci in every flower and other niceties, but also high mammals dieing in excruciating pain because eaten by other animals for millions of years without any possibility to stop doing that or even understanding how much violence they inflict to each other. We can observe millions of kids that are still learning moral rules, and did not have any chance to do any evil, still, they suffered enormous pains before dieing of some terrible disease. Our body is designed to feel the pain even when there is no necessity at all. Some pain is so high that even if a person is put is the strongest pharmacological coma, he still feels the pain. We had innocent people in Bosnia during the recent war that were grilled alive for hours with the stick put through their bodies.

    So, if the Big Designer or God designed all this, and he had a choice to do it differently, because designing means making choices, I can hardly swallow that much omni-benevolence. As the matter of fact, if I follow your Mandelbrot example, we should surely expect to find after some zooming in, English letters ‘S.A.D.I.S.M’, instead of ‘L.O.V.E’. If the intelligent design is so obvious in this world for you, so it should be even sadism.

    So, why is Landsburg more charitable than you? Because for him the Universe, and life and everything is an inevitable logical consequence of truths and complexities that existed and that have to exist, because there is no choice, even before the first quark got out of the Big Bang. So, the way the World enrolled in the way it enrolled was the only way. Therefore, kissing a girl for the first time or skinning a war prisoner alive, among many other things, are inevitable patterns of Existence, without anybody being able to chose anything in the Early Beginning. Well, if there was no choice in the Beginning, there was actually no evil and no good. It was, as it was and it can’t be different. This does not remove the human free will, because even in the deterministic World, a thermostat really controls the temperature, but that’s as good as it can get the humans free will. It is not fully free, but it is free enough for a limited creature to believe it is.

    Another comment: in your 3 possible choices chapter, simulation, multi-verse or world is a theorem of Math, it is interesting you mentioned Matrix. Probably it was a slip, because you wanted to use it as a metaphor that everything was simulated, and nothing was real. But actually the reality of Matrix was much more terrible than this, because there were 2 layers, exploited physical bodies and the simulated layer that made believe the victims they were actually acting. And I remember the sentence from the movie, “The version 1.0 of Matrix was an ideal Disneyland, but then bodies died in the human farm, only when in version 2.0 we made it more human like, it was OK”. I do not know how many layers of evil are there in this sentence. Evil Designer made humans in the way it made them. Than the AI exploiters tried to be more charitable than Himself, but it ended up they had to be as bad as Him.

    So, if you really want to go in the direction of ID, well, it might be intelligent, but you need to add one I in front of it, saying Immoral Intelligent Design. Instead, if you understand and accept Landsburg’s theory, the World is a product of neither intelligence, nor ethics, nor design, but a product of logical inevitability. As soon as you embrace the design hypothesis, which means choice, you have millions of miles to explai the evil away. And you can not put everything on man’s free will. Animals suffered regardless and before the first man ever walked in this World.

  8. Hypatia on 03/14/2020 at 4:16 AM

    Who designed the designer?

  9. Keith Wiggans on 03/14/2020 at 8:28 PM

    Loved the episode. I think smart arguments for ID are important for mainstream science so they can bolster their arguments.
    Question for smarter persons. There was a section about playing cards and seeing royal flushes throughout nature. My question is, how rare should that seem if there are billions of dealers over millions of years? Shouldn’t we expect a plethora of “royal flushes” in nature?

    • Robert Murphy on 03/15/2020 at 2:26 PM

      Great question Keith, and you’re right, I didn’t spell that out in my discussion. So their answer would be, it’s still very improbable. (One estimate of the fraction of folded proteins that work, compared to the space of all possible protein configurations, is 1/10^77.) When the interview with Winston drops, maybe he will hang out in the comments and field questions.

  10. Tyler Magnan on 03/17/2020 at 5:23 AM

    Great episode Bob. I was especially intrigued by the mathematics you brought up. I have a Bachelor’s in Math and Econ, and a Master’s in Stats, but somehow Euler’s Identity has never been brought to my attention. I’ve always been astonished by how often those constants come up. The fact that e and pi both show up in normal curves and normal curves show up everywhere in life is amazing. Maybe someday, we’ll find out that complex numbers are related to dark matter.

  11. John R Palmer on 03/25/2020 at 9:52 PM

    Bob, you made a point early in the episode suggesting the improbability of the amazing diversity of the natural world, given a set of simple physical rules, using that to motivate plausibility of a designer.

    I kept waiting and never heard you compare that to the amazing diversity of the global economy that arises from the simple rules of human action, something not of human design and yet so often believed replicable by central planning.

    • Robert Murphy on 03/26/2020 at 11:46 AM

      Yes John, it IS amazing how the market economy works. One might say it’s guided by an Invisible Hand… 🙂

      • John on 03/27/2020 at 3:48 AM

        Clever response, yes, but that expression is clearly not to be taken literally. To be less obtuse, I mean that complexity results from even simple rules

  12. Charles Rosa on 02/11/2021 at 1:43 PM

    Very nice episode. This and the interview with Landsburg (on his belief that all of reality flows ultimately from math) were fascinating. Very glad, too, that you made me aware (in this and other ID podcasts) about the “no free lunch” theorem. While this theorem doesn’t necessarily disprove Darwinian evolution, it does suggest that it’s not necessarily the best explanation (or search algorithm) for getting us to where we are “on the fitness landscape”. Keep up the great work. I’m enjoying your explicitly Christian themed podcasts a lot (in addition to the usual Austrian fare).

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