Whose Notion of ‘Design in Nature’ Do You Accept?

“Design is a dirty word.” – Adrian Bejan (2012b)

“Life was designed…planned…intended.” – Stephen C. Meyer (2010)

“The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly
seemed to me to be so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.” – Charles Darwin (1887)

A row is ready to erupt over two competing notions of ‘design in nature.’ One has been proposed under the auspices of being a natural-physical law. The other continues to clamour for public attention and respectability among natural-physical scientists, engineers and educators, but carries with it obvious religious overtones (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Wedge Document and Dover trial 2005) and still has not achieved widespread scholarly support after almost 20 years of trying.

The two positions could not be more different, yet they share something in common, a single phrase: ‘design in nature.’ On the one hand is the Seattle, Washington-based Discovery Institute (DI) Centre for Science and Culture’s notion of ‘design in nature,’ which says that an un-embodied, unnamed, transcendent ‘designer/Designer’ (usually assumed to be either aliens or God) is responsible for creating life on Earth and the cosmos generally speaking. They call this position ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID), which is a theory about life’s origins and the origins of biological information and sometimes about human origins.

The other definition of ‘design in nature’ is found in the recent work of a decorated engineer. Dr. Adrian Bejan is a Romanian-born professor at Duke University who is trained in thermodynamics and has published his works in major international scientific and educational journals. Bejan uses the same phrase (2012, co-authored with J. Peder Zane) as part of his so-called grand ‘Constructal Law[1]’ that says ‘design in nature’ is real and should therefore be obvious to scientists. He suggests that no controversy is needed about this because it simply makes sense that “all macroscopic design in nature arises to facilitate access to flow” (2012b). Bejan’s notion of ‘design in nature’ has nothing to do with religion, nor is it attempting to facilitate discussion between science, philosophy and religion, as the IDM is doing.

One of these definitions of ‘design in nature’ may or may not be true, while the other must surely be false. They cannot both represent the same thing at the same time given the very different worldviews (cf. cosmo-vision) and intended meanings of their masters. Yet this is more than just a semantic game, whose consequences may be as deep as the individual or community that is considering them. Let the reader compare the two positions carefully before reaching their conclusion.

“The Constructal law is revolutionary because it is a law of physics…It governs any system, any time, anywhere,” says Bejan (2012a). Bejan holds that ‘design in nature’ does not require a ‘designer’ or a ‘Designer.’ To most people, especially those who have come to equate ID’s ‘Designer’ with the Abrahamic God, Yahweh or Allah, the proposition by Bejan is either troublesome in its practical atheism or nonsensical in its disjunction between subject and verb.

Bejan claims that it is the English language that is to blame for the confusion because it holds ‘design’ as a noun as well as a verb ‘designing[2].’ Bejan is attempting to prove that ‘design in nature’ is real, like a ‘drawing,’ but that no designer/Designer did or even needed to do the designing. In other words, he seeks to amplify the controversial notion of ‘design’ without a ‘designer.’ This flies directly in the face of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), which claims that design implies a designer/Designer, even if we are not able, using the tools of natural or physical science, to know or prove it directly. For the IDM, the obvious implication that there ‘must have been’ a designer/Designer is one of the biggest attractions of ID theory.

What does Bejan think of ID? He is not a fan of it. He says: “The constructal law is not headed toward a creationist argument, and in no way does it support the claims of those who promulgate the fantasy of intelligent design. Anyone who takes excerpts from this book to suggest that I am arguing for a spiritual sense of ‘designedness’ is engaging in an intentional act of dishonesty.” (2012a) One can sense that Bejan is tired of being asked about ID and the impression comes across that Bejan holds his self-constructed ‘constructal law’ as something almost sacred and holy, as an alternative to religion named as a ‘Law of Physics.’ “A new law of physics improves everyone’s thinking ability,” he contends. “Everybody gets it.” (2012c)

Both approaches to ‘design in nature,’ by the IDM and Bejan portend a kind of ‘scientific revolution’ in our understanding of the world. William Dembski writes of the ‘design revolution,’ speaking of ID as “the bridge between science and theology.” Discovery Institute Centre for Science and Culture Director Stephen C. Meyer says “We are in the very initial stages of a scientific revolution.” (in Wilgoren 2005)

The IDM’s notion that ‘design is real’ thus functions as an ‘objective (natural) law,’ even if we can’t prove it using natural scientific methods. So far, ID’s claim to ‘scientificity’ is based on probabilistic reasoning and pattern recognition, contending that certain biological structures are too complex to have happened by chance and that therefore ‘design/Design’ was necessarily involved in the “purposeful arrangement of parts” (M. Behe). For Bejan, the reality of ‘design in nature’ is not something that needs to be questioned; it is not up for discussion whether there is design or not. It is something that he assumes, thus in effect claiming once and for all that “design in nature is a phenomenon of physics and no longer an enigma[3].” Thus, “It’s high time,” says Bejan, that “we recognize ‘design’ as a scientific concept.” (2012b)

At the same time, however, we see equivocation between objective and subjective notions of ‘design’ in both approaches. Bejan states that, as an engineer, “I’ve been a designer throughout my career.” (2012a) Yet obviously Bejan is not saying that he or any of us ‘designed’ the laws of nature or even flow in nature, unless he has some kind of a god-complex. The IDM, on the other hand, frequently makes analogies to human-made things, suggesting that if we can conclude the obvious ‘design’ in artificial objects made by ‘mundane designers’ (Dembski 2004), then it makes sense by analogy to conclude that a mind/Mind was responsible for ‘designing’ and ‘creating’ the biological world and the cosmos. Both conceptions of ‘design in nature’ therefore seem to lack humility in one way or another by making a leap of faith; one into physical law, the other into religion.

What seems to be missing from both sides is an admission that they ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ For example, why does the IDM generally ignore the vast majority of living and practicing ‘design theorists,’ whose work continues unimpeded by grandiose claims about the origins of life and biological information? Is the Discovery Institute really more intent on erecting some new kind of implication-filled (right wing conservative-inspired) science-religion apologetics than in making purely scientific discoveries? The IDM leaves out ‘systems design’ and ‘design and planning,’ while these paradigms are prolific in literature and experience. Major figures include Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Bela Banathy, Kenneth Boulding, Norbert Weiner, Ervin Laszlo, and perhaps most significantly, Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize winner and author of “The Sciences of the Artificial” (1969). Likewise, Morris Asimow, Buckminster Fuller, Kenneth Starr, Horst Rittel, Bryan Lawson, Nigel Cross and many others; these are ‘design’ thinkers and theorists that the IDM rarely or never references.

By e-mail, I asked Bejan if he had heard of Laszlo, Bertalanffy or Norbert Weiner. He responded negatively. Likewise I inquired if his use of ‘flow’ in ‘Constructal Law’ was connected in any way with the work of Hungarian positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, e.g. his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). Again, his response was negative. To Bejan’s credit, he does acknowledge his “pantheon of grand figures. For me it is Carnot, Rankine, Gibbs, and Prandtl.” (2011) Nevertheless, he claims originality when it comes to ‘Constructal Law’ and no predecessor when it comes to positing ‘design in nature.’

Bejan speaks on one hand about “The oneness of design in nature,” as if ‘nature designs itself,’ as if ‘nature’ is a ‘designer.’ The IDM on the other hand speaks about non-natural, supra-natural and/or super-natural design in nature, which allows for a transcendental designer (Dembski 2004) of nature and biological information, the Cambrian Explosion, etc. These are very different approaches to a theme addressed by the same name; one is naturalistic, while the other claims to oppose naturalism.

Bejan says that “The search for the designer…is much older and it is called religion. Constructal law is not about that. My work in science is not about that.” (2012) Here is a place where Bejan and the IDM are actually in agreement; neither allows for a “search for the designer” within their scientific, pseudo-scientific or proto-scientific theories. This is because both seek legitimacy for their approaches to be called ‘scientific.’ Likewise, both reject that ‘design in nature’ is a random or chance feature of reality, that ‘design in nature’ is a ‘cosmic coincidence’. Bejan got his idea from a disagreement (he calls it a ‘conflict’) with Ilya Prigogine, from which resulted the ‘Constructal Law’ that Bejan believes can account “for the generation of design everywhere.” (2012d). The IDM on the other hand, took their idea of ‘Intelligent Design’ from Charles Thaxton, who wrote about ‘intelligent causes’ and the theistic ‘argument from design’ or ‘design argument’ (i.e. “argument for creation”) in the mid-late 1980’s.

Bejan goes further to naturalise ‘design’ than the IDM, however, by stating that, “Design happens, as a law of nature.” (2012b) Instead, the IDM more subtly suggests by analogy to ‘uniform experience': “If it looks designed, it is.” One might ask in what discipline(s) or field(s) of study ‘design’ is meant to apply. It is clear from both projects that ‘design’ is meant as an interdisciplinary approach to nature. Bejan combines an art, architecture, physics, thermodynamics and engineering approach to ‘design in nature’ while the IDM combines a computer science, biosemiotic, cosmological, neuroscientific, palaeontological, religious, government, public relations and also engineering approach to ‘design in nature.’

One might wonder if Bejan is known to the IDM or if Bejan borrowed the already existent phrase ‘design in nature’ from the IDM. The record shows at least one point of contact between Bejan and the IDM. On Dec. 2, 2009, Bejan visited the ID-community site Uncommon Descent (UD) to answer a contest question and revealed his ‘Constructal Law’ to them. UD journalist Denyse O’Leary responded to his words, saying: “One must be cautious about posting laws that all life forms must follow.” Bejan did not respond to O’Leary’s refusal to take his approach seriously. Nevertheless, his book on ‘design in nature’ followed just over two years later, so it must be expected that he knew the IDM was already using the phrase ‘design in nature.’ I have discovered recently some messages by ID supporters criticizing Bejan, including one blogger who made a critique[4] of Bejan’s ‘design in nature.’ There was also recently an ID-friendly conference with one presentation on ‘Constructal Law’ in relation to metaphysics[5].

There is no indication that Bejan paid the IDM any attention at all after that O’Leary’s response, but only that he has in recent months continuously dismissed their view of ‘design in nature’ as a ‘fantasy’ rather than as ‘reality.’ As Bejan clarifies, “in no way does the constructal law support the claims of Intelligent Design. Instead it solves one of the great riddles of science – design without a designer.” (2012b) The only reason Bejan can possibly say this is backed by his engineer’s suggestion: “We should embrace the noun and be careful with the verb.” But as anyone who is a native English speaker will realise, one cannot have ‘design’ without a ‘designer;’ the noun and the verb are intertwined semantically. In order for design to happen (i.e. to have occurred), there simply must be a designer.

So who is more right than wrong or less wrong than right; Adrian Bejan or the IDM? Whose ‘new science,’ whose ‘law of nature,’ whose proposed ‘scientific revolution’ is more appropriate, more ridiculous or full of potential to transform our understanding of nature, humanity and the world? Whose insistence on ‘design in nature’ is the least absurd or the most insightful, such that a new scientific paradigm could arise because of it, if masses of people were to become convinced that it is true, real and meaningful?

Let us not forget, says Bejan, “It is not love or money that makes the world go round, but flow and design.” After reading such an apparent platitude based supposedly on the ‘Constructal Law,’ one might wonder: Is ‘design in nature’ necessarily connected with a person’s commitment or lack of commitment to religion and worldview[6]? Are human beings’ personalities and characters involved in either Bejan’s or the IDM’s ‘design in nature’?

Design:

“the making of plans to bring about desired situations in the world.” – Horst Rittel (In Protzen and Harris 2012)

“any goal-oriented activity that involves decision making.” – K.M. Papamichael and J.P. Protzen (1993)

With these last two meanings of ‘design,’ we can surely all agree that it is part of ‘human nature’ and ‘human culture,’ even if design is not as obviously or evidentially visible in the non-human world. Without the IDM’s appeals for ID by nature’s analogy to human designs and without Bejan’s naturalistic perspective of art and engineering, the notion of ‘design in nature’ would not currently be on the table for debate. The question being asked of supporters of both views of ‘design in nature’ at this Blog is: How can Human Extension (http://humanextension.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/humanextension/) help us to understand humanity and where we are headed, e.g. how is design manifested or instantiated by people in communities using their talents and choices, in a way that neither Bejan or the IDM are currently asking?

Bibliography:

Bejan, Adrian (2011). Stressing the Science of Engineering. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 133, No. 10, ASME.

Bejan, Adrian and J. Peder Zane (2012). Design in Nature. Doubleday.

Bejan, Adrian (2012a). “The Case for a ‘Constructal’ Law of Design in Nature.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9eB_i-hK94)

Bejan, Adrian and J. Peder Zane (2012b). “In design, nature goes with the flow.” Newsobserver, May 8, 2012. (http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/05/08/2049864/in-design-nature-goes-with-the.html)

Bejan, Adrian (2012c). “There’s a New Law in Physics and It Changes Everything.” Interview with Anthony Wing Kosner. Forbes Magazine. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2012/02/29/theres-a-new-law-in-physics-and-it-changes-everything/)

Bejan, Adrian (2012d). “Interview with Adrian Bejan.” By Matt Staggs. February 2012.(http://suvudu.com/2012/02/interview-with-design-in-nature-author-adrian-bejan-part-one.html)

Darwin, Charles (1887). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Ed. by N. Barlow, London: Collins, 1958.

Darwin’s Dilemma (2010). Illustra Media.

Lunau, Kate (2012). Review of “Design in Nature.” http://www2.macleans.ca/tag/design-in-nature/

Papamichael K.M. and J.P. Protzen (1993). “The Limits of Intelligence in Design”. Presented at the Focus Symposium on “Computer-Assisted Building Design Systems” of the 4th International Symposium on System Research, Informatics and Cybernetics, Baden-Baden, Germany, August 3-4, 1993.

Protzen, Jean-Pierre and David J. Harris (2010). The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning. New York: Routledge.

Thaxton, Charles B. (1991). “In Pursuit of Intelligent Causes: Some Historical Background.” June 23–26, 1988, revised July 1988 and May 1991 [cited 25-08-2012]. (http://www.leaderu.com/offices/thaxton/docs/inpursuit.html)

Wilgoren, Jodi (2005). “Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive.” The New York Times. Aug. 21, 2005. (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/national/21evolve.html)


[1] “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to survive) its configuration must evolve (morph) in time in such a way that it provides easier flow access.” – Bejan (1996)

[2] “In Latin the word ‘design’ really means drawing. It is a noun. It signifies that which you see. The image. The configuration. The discernible pattern.” … “In English, unfortunately, design is also a verb; it is ‘to design,’ to make a mental viewing, obviously in the human mind.” … “And yes, if you think of design as a verb, then to design goes hand-in-hand with a designer.” – Bejan (2012a)

[6] “there is not conscious intelligence behind these patterns, no Divine Architect churning out brilliant blueprints.” – Bejan (2012a)

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3 Responses to “Whose Notion of ‘Design in Nature’ Do You Accept?”


  1. 1 ndi 18/12/2012 at 19:32

    Although not religious and after a lifetime of weighing up Atheism vs Theism, I have come to a similar conclusion to that of Anthony Flew. I cannot reject, with certainty, the apparent design in nature or the many arguments put forward recently by the Discovery Institute and the many proponents of Intelligent Design.

    I have settled, for the time being, to that of a Deist. I accept the notion of design in nature as presented by the Intelligent Design community. The evolutionary narrative seems highly improbable, to me at least, without an intelligent agent or agents to kick start the process.

    But these are my humble thoughts, you obviously disagree?

    • 2 Gregory Sandstrom 21/12/2012 at 18:08

      ndi, thanks for your question and the sensitive way you framed your message. Here I would say it is not agree vs. disagree, but rather what are the meanings behind the terms?

      Evolutionary Creation is the position that an ‘intelligent agent’ (or agents), by which explicitly is meant the Abrahamic God, ‘kick started’ evolution and perhaps even participates in natural history now. There are Deists who accept Evolutionary Creation in the sense that they believe the universe was ‘front-loaded’ and then left to ‘evolve’ on its own. No personal or ‘hands-on’ Deity need be involved. Others who promote Evolutionary Creation believe in a more active role throughout history for the Deity, which sounds like it might be called Theism in your approach.

      Wrt the ‘Intelligent Design Community’ there are many positions, some which are contradictory. This is made possible because of the IDM’s populist (mainly amongst Protestants) strategy of including as many people as possible in a ‘big tent’ based on a “very limited inquiry” meaning of ‘design’ on the one hand, coupled with the broadest possible ‘implications’ of ‘design in nature.’ Most people understand the vast implications of a theory that claims the universe is Designed involve belief in a Deity. There is great resistance amongst ID proponents, however, to publically admit that the reason (most often the main one) why people accept or approve of Intelligent Design Theory is precisely because they are religious in the first place.

      To you I would ask: are you a Deist because you first believed in Intelligent Design or do you believe in Intelligent Design because you were first a Deist? This question is meant in regard to personal history because Anthony Flew is the only reported case of (near) simultaneous conversion.

      Bejan admits that ‘evolution’ was theorized before Charles Darwin was born too, so it’s not like the IDM is the only one criticising Darwin. The IDM claims to have a ‘scientific’ alternative to neo-Darwinian theory, to the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, to have found the ‘Edge of Evolution.’ That is why many people are asking for actual physical evidence of this, for evidence of ID in natural history, which the IDM has not (yet) been able to provide. This request happens alongside of the philosophical and theological or worldview issues involved in accepting or denying Design of the universe by a Deity.

      To more specifically address where you’ve currently settled, I would ask: Does the Deity intervene, tinker with, interact with, co-create with and/or engage in the history of nature and/or humanity? That’s an open question which requires more than just natural science, but also philosophy, social science and theology or worldview studies. The official view of ID by the DI, however, is that ‘ID is a scientific theory,’ full stop; no philosophy or theology/worldview need apply.

      The people who promote ID that I have the least sympathy for are those who insist that ID is a ‘science-only’ theory, i.e. that it has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s philosophy or theology or worldview. To me, that is an ignorant position, driven by some felt need to appear ‘scientific’ in order to be ‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ or real. Bejan on the other hand, is simply being dogmatic in his ‘scientific’ meaning of ‘design in nature,’ while denying that dogma has anything to do with science or ever could.

      In any case, thanks for your provocation!


  1. 1 Is ‘Design in Nature’ a Non-Starter? | The Skeptical Zone Trackback on 05/09/2012 at 22:25

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