Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
The Intelligent Design (ID) argument was first put forth by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and made popular by William Paley with his watchmaker analogy. Simply put, because the universe is governed by rationally intelligible principles, there must be an intelligence behind it.
Ever since the ancient times, idealists (Platonists and Stoics) and materialists (Epicureans) have argued for and against the existence of a Creator by judging the quality of the design of the universe. It’s interesting how people reach opposite conclusions from the same evidence: The materialists would argue that the universe stands too full of flaws, and is by and large inhospitable to man, and therefore not designed with man in mind; Platonists and the Stoics would argue the contrary: the world is designed by god for a common dwelling place of gods and men. The design is good because the world is orderly, beautiful and life-sustaining.
For my part, I think it is rather futile, if not presumptuous, to argue whether the universe is well-designed or not. We simply don’t know enough to qualify as judges.
Firstly, we were not there when the universe was created, and we don’t know anything about its purpose or founding principles. Who then are we to judge its design? To argue that the universe is not well-designed, by fixating on an infinitesimal part that doesn’t meet our criteria, is like taking a few words out of context from War and Peace to prove the work is shoddy.
Secondly, this is the only universe that we know of, so we cannot prove its design, or lack thereof, by comparing it against other universes generated from truly aimless processes, if such universes can exist. Incidentally, long before the modern string theorists, the ancients, such as Aristotle and Lucretius, have contemplated the possibility of multiple universes, and, again, came to opposite conclusions. Without a genuine control to compare against, any argument of design is inconclusive.
Thirdly, the modern ID advocates have made a fatal mistake of conflating design and process. They attempt to defend supernatural design by asserting the improbability of a natural process, and understandably incurred the ire of the scientific community, theists and atheists alike. Atheists fall into the same trap on the opposite end: they dismiss design by fixating on the process and claiming that the process is purposeless. Science, as is currently practiced, is agnostic of purpose. Everything come into existence through a natural process, regardless whether the cause is supernatural.
Having said the above, I think the ID argument is very important in that it points to the future of mankind’s intellectual endeavour: ultimately, understanding the nature of the universe necessitates understanding the nature of man, of mind, intelligence and purpose.
Firstly, with regard to design and intent.
Nature is a work of science, but it is also a work of art. One can trace a work of art to the artist by recognizing the characteristics of the artwork as a whole. This is done in the art world when connoisseurs try to determine whether an anonymous work was created by an old master, or made by a performing monkey.
Things caused by a human agent come to effect through a natural process, but they also indicate the intent of the person behind it. For example, in forensics, the poison that killed a man can be traced to the murderer, and it is possible to prove intent, to tell the difference between what is spontaneous and what is premeditated.
Secondly, with regard to mind and purpose.
Lucretius, like many materialists, argues that human activities are purposeful whereas nature is not. Here is his rationale: whenever a man creates something, he already has some purpose in mind before he makes the thing; in nature, a thing exists for no pre-determined purpose but only adapts to whatever environment it finds itself in.
Note the change of perspective in his argument: when his speaks of human activity, his focus is on mind, not matter, but when he speaks of nature, his focus is on matter, not mind.
Obviously, purpose can only be found where there is mind. If you preclude mind behind nature in your premise, the conclusion that nature is purposeless is already built in. Conversely, to be logically consistent, if one accepts the purposefulness of human artifacts, he must also accept the possibility of purpose of things in nature and nature as a whole.