A post today dealing with junk DNA led me to some thinking about just how the nature of a designer might impact the nature of the things designed. It seems to me that no matter where we are looking for design, whether in the form of alien artifacts on a distant planet (in our imaginations) or for the footprints of God in living creatures, what we end up searching for is signs of human-like design, i.e. at a minimum we are looking for something that is designed the way we might design it.
Proponents of intelligent design have long maintained that Neo-Darwinism’s widely held assumption that our cells contain much genetic “junk” is both dangerous to the progress of science and wrong. As I explain here, design theorists recognize that “Intelligent agents typically create functional things,” and thus Jonathan Wells has suggested, “From an ID perspective, however, it is extremely unlikely that an organism would expend its resources on preserving and transmitting so much ‘junk’.”  Design theorists have thus been predicting the death of the junk-DNA paradigm for many years . . .
But this really avoids the issue. Let’s consider some analogies, starting with architecture. What is the purpose of decorative elements on a building. I live in a very simple building, with almost nothing about its design that could be called decorative. I work in a similar building. But I know of numerous houses that are clearly designed (I not only know the nature of the designer, I know him personally) that nonetheless have wasted space, and elements of their design that are just there because they looked good to someone.
I’ve heard this home designer explain to a client that doing something in a certain way will cost extra in materials and may not be the most efficient use of space, but if they like that appearance, it can be done that way. In general those clients decide to make the house look the way they want to, even if they could get more square footage of usable floor space at less cost by eliminating some of the odd shapes. The point here is that there is “junk” in the design, and it would be very difficult to determine why if we didn’t know something about the designers (and clients) and why they might want a certain design.
Now let’s consider a horse. Horse ancestors in the wild are not “designed” for humans to ride them. Human beings thought of how to tame them, to breed them for particular characteristics, and train them for particular activities. A horse in the wild might be mistaken as something that had a human-oriented purpose (though without humans it would be unlikely that an imaginary alien would figure it out), and a “designed” horse, that is one that was bred for particular characteristics but which had then been released into the wild might be assumed to have no human intervention.
My point is that our “instincts” on these issues all have a strong element of our understanding of how various humans think and what the possibilities are for human designers. I’m wondering if we would necessarily recognize something designed by a completely alien culture. How much would it overlap? Would it be possible, for example, to have an alien science that was totally centered around biology and solved various problems through manipulation of living things? Science fiction writers have certainly imagined such civilizations. The question I have is how long it would take us, with our assumptions and “instincts” to recognize such a cultures products as designed.
From the theological point of view, I would suggest that we make excessive assumptions about the desires of the creator. Very commonly people assume that human beings are the only intelligent creation. But we have only our lack of knowledge of anyone else to make us assume that. There is plenty of room for other creatures out there. There are those who argue that the Bible is addressed to us and doesn’t mention those other creatures, yet to whom precisely do they expect that a divine revelation would be addressed, except, well, to the folks to whom it is addressed? In other words, we do not know the answer to that question. We don’t know if human life, or life on earth in general, is the one and only form of life the creator might have created.
This is one of the possibilities that biological evolution opens up for theologians. The observations that stand behind the theory of evolution let us know that there is a tremendous freedom and a certain level of disorder behind our observed order. This suggests to a number of people, including me, that God is less interested in a fixed order and more interested in the freedom of creation–a creative creation–than we might normally have imagined.
Due to our fears and uncertainties, we tend to try to take control of our environment and fix things in place. Then we try to make God in our image by assuming that he is going to do the same thing. We try to conserve our resources when we create something, though even at that we expend resources on decoration. Just look at any church building if you doubt me. But is there any reason to assume that God as creator would behave in the same way? Can we assume that an alien culture would share our insecurities?
I have previously stated it this way:
We put a low value on freedom of choice, on autonomy, and on creativity. We prefer comfort and safety. Many, many people will give up their own decisions and their own stewardship in exchange for the feeling that they are safe. But it appears that in the way that God has arranged the universe, physical safety is much lower on the priority list. Spiritual safety is much more assured than is physical safety. (Not Ashamed of the Gospel, p. 55)
All of these questions suggest that we need to know the nature of a designer before we can discuss just what that designer would design.
Again, to quote myself:
When we deal with the creation, we’re in a similar position with God. We can look at the way the universe functions and we can see certain things about what is necessary to live in the universe. We can try to imagine the attributes of God that are reflected in his natural universe. These would include the law of cause and effect, and the apparent desire for creatures that have a range of freedom of action. Simple application of the law of cause and effect could make moral creatures of us, though we might choose rather different value systems.
But if God has a greater purpose for this world, this universe, and for our individual lives, the universe itself is not going to inform us. For that we would need special revelation if we are to know at all. (Source: When People Speak for God, p. 21
Now I’m somewhat unorthodox in much of my theology, but on this I believe I’m quite thoroughly orthodox. We will not comprehend God’s purposes purely from natural things. We require God’s self-revelation. I think it is logical to derive from that the idea that the purpose of some elements of creation may look like one thing to us without special revelation, and may look quite different in the light of God’s revelation in scripture.
Intelligent design may claim to detect design without any comment on the designer, but it looks to me as though through a foundational lack of imagination, it is stuck looking at totally natural design, and thus providing nothing new that could ultimate explain the existence of anything.