What do we mean when we say something is designed or is the product of “design”? To design something is “to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan,” “to conceive and plan out in the mind,” “to have as a purpose,” “to devise for a specific function or end.”

For example, if we wish to make a hole in a wooden plank, we create a tool or machine, such as a drill, to accomplish that end. The drill is the product of design. It allows us to achieve some end, not accidentally, but rather on purpose. The functionality of a thing is insuffient to suggest design. Design requires creation or creative alteration with purpose, with intent. This is telic behavior – that is behavior tending toward an end or outcome.

Clearly the design of the drill is the product of intelligence. Something that appears to be drill-like or functions as a drill is not the product of intelligence. Such a thing may be used as a drill, but was not designed for that purpose – in fact, it wasn’t designed at all. An example would be the bill of a woodpecker. It functions to make holes in wood (and its functionality is not limited to making holes in wood), but it was not designed for this function. Its functionality is the result of evolution.

What is “intelligence”? Intelligence is the ability to learn from experience, to change behavior in an intentional way to adapt to environments, to demonstrate the capacity to reason, to acquire and apply knowledge, to solve problems, to comprehend or understand situations and respond appropriately and meaningfully. Intelligence is essentially a faculty of reason and thought.

That which is the product of design is presumed to be the act of an intelligence. It seems to me, then, that the idea of “intelligent design” is a redundant expression. Design presumes intelligence. Moreover, since design presupposes an intelligence, then things that are the products of design are things that are the product of intelligence. Please know that I am not making an argument here. I am merely defining terms. The bottomline is that things which are the products of design are things that are created, constructed and executed according to plan with an end in mind.

The mind is a product of social interaction and relations that root in a biological capacity that has emerged from a long evolutionary process. Natural and social histories represent an interlinked process that has produced an intelligence capable of identifying and elaborating that process.

Because the emergence of consciousness has been gradual, grasping the process was not initially accurate and remains incomplete. The methods and meaning systems used to understand the process evolved over time, eventually producing science, the most successful method for explaining the process. Early methods yielded the notion that there was an intelligence behind everything. It confused function with purpose. The modern method – the scientific method – demonstrates that most things were the result of a non-intelligent process, that function was the result of evolution, not design and purpose.

Although science has not answered every question, it has managed to properly distinguish the difference between function and purpose. This is arguably the major breakthrough in human consciousness. So-called “intelligent design,” even if we grant that it is not veiled creationism (which, of course, it is) is retrograde because it wishes to deny, retard, even reverse the progress of consciousness.

This is why, while science has yielded a wide array of applications, intelligent design has yielded nothing.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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