There are many candidates for what could be considered to be an intelligent agent. Examples include humans, animals, aliens, AI (e.g. ChatGPT?), and supernaturalists would probably add angels, deities, God or gods, and similar candidates to the list as well. So, if we want to talk about "some" intelligent agent in an abstract general sense, without specifying the exact nature or identity of this agent, we need a robust and general definition of intelligence. Related questions such as What is intelligence? and How do philosophers understand intelligence (beyond artificial intelligence)? are probably relevant here.

So my question is twofold:

  • Is there a robust, general theory of intelligence and design that can simultaneously encompass all the entities that people normally would consider to be intelligent and capable of producing some sort of design?
  • Assuming we have such a theory, would it be possible in principle to establish that some concrete object shows evidence of design by some intelligent agent (in this general abstract sense), solely by studying the properties of said object?

8 Answers 8


The simple answer is, no there isn't.

We recognise certain features as indicating evolution, like vestigial remnant functions, such as the human appendix, or wisdom teeth, which can't be explained by design - except by a sadist designer. Conversely certain features like wheels, or binary logic gates, seem to be features of human-designed systems but have never evolved for various disputed reasons.

But the distinction between humans being subject to, or agents of evolutionary design, is pretty arbitrary - aren't our designed things just furtherences of our evolutionary priorities? Biologist Denis Noble makes great points that organisms have always benefited from genes that imbue creative capacities, in ways the genes themselves don't determine - organisms' subjectivities do.

So to my mind, the interesting thing is to look at actual edge cases.

One of the earliest indications for microbial life on Mars, was comparison between the silica structures left around hydrothermal systems like in Iceland, with silica-sinter structures found in Martian rocks. See eg: A multidisciplinary study of silica sinter deposits with applications to silica identification and detection of fossil life on Mars. Complex chemistry? Hallmark of biological activity? The jury is at least somewhat still out.

An interesting case was a group taking up the challenge, of deducing the structure and purpose of a microchip, from examining it - the flood of information about reverse engineering chips means I haven't located the research I have in mind. The point was though, that without considering the purposes of a chip, it's very very difficult to investigate it's structure. We find a similar thing with evolution, we have to try to conceptualise benefits and harms relative to a niche, or we just see a proliferation of complexity without a key to interpret it.

The Antikythera Mechanism, seems to have dragged scholars to the recognition that Ancient Greeks had a level of complexity in clockwork not achieved again for around 1500 years. The deduction process involved from a silted-up lump of rust, was pretty interesting. The numbers of teeth, the ratios of gears, and facts about the regularities of our solar system, bore deep connections - but imagine if you hadn't been considering that as a source of the patterns. It is interesting to note how alignments and art at Newgrange seem to indicate a profound understanding of how to predict the motions of Venus. We need to understand possible purposes, in order to be able to recognise the signigicance in patterns of design.

The oldest human object showing evidence of symbolic thought is an incised bone from Pradelles: From number sense to number symbols. An archaeological perspective. There is the oldest known musical instrument: Divge Babe flute. And, the oldest repeated symbols, found in cave paintings: Did Stone Age cavemen talk to each other in symbols? These underline the difficulty of proving a progression from decorative, to abstract design. How complex does something have to be to indicate math? To indicate craft? To indicate abstract symbolic thought?

The Strugatsky brothers' science fiction and literary masterpiece Roadside Picnic, interpreted into Tarkovsky's greatest film Stalker, helps give a window on to the kind of gulf we might face, between us and beings capable of traversing stellar distances in one lifetime. We might be like ants to them, or, like lichen. Their concerns expressed to us, might see us like a dog watching a lecture on General Relativity. We may just be unable to grasp our own relative simplicity.

Personally I take comfort in that. If we can determine evolved or designed about an object, great. But what if it seems like incoherent sorcery to us? Like the Lazy Gun of Iain M. Banks 'Against A Dark Background'? The objects of a more complex mind and species than our own, would be like the Von Neumann-replicator-obelisks of Clarke's/Kubrick's '2001' - a literal 'blackbox' to us..!

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

-Clarke's Third Law

We cannot (fully) understand the mind of a designer more complex than our own minds, I would contend. We perhaps should hope for indications of evolution, or a human-like mind; because if an object indicates niether, our concerns will very likely be profoundly irrelevant in the future, like the ant-nests or termite mounds we find the way of us building a runway....

  • 4
    I liked this answer a lot. But it seems to me that you are missing a key point, which is missed also by all the other answers and by the question and by all the other similar questions, because there is no analysis of the concept of a person or an agency. It is critical to understand that these concepts are not simply empirical. On the contrary, they define the way that evidence is interpreted. Any evidence can be interpreted as the result of an agency or not. It's a question of where you start from.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 8:21
  • 3
    We don't classify human beings as persons because we have weighed the evidence. We treat them as persons because we have learnt to do so, beginning as soon as we are born. We learn how to treat them and how they treat us. Without that background, the empirical questions you deal with, would not be an issue. So the question is not an empirical one, but a decision, (based admittedly on empirical input) what relationship is appropriate. Not always an easy one to answer as the endless debate about animals and God shows. But it would be easier if we recognized what kind of question it is.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 8:25
  • 2
    This is basically describing Dawkins's notion of "extended phenotype". A clock is an extension of the human phenotype, just as a dam is an extension of beavers, nests are extensions of birds, and hives are extensions of bees.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 14:30
  • 3
    I’m pretty sure there are “vestigial remnant features” in many human-designed artifacts. The CPU in my desktop computer, for example, has vestigial 8086 and 80286 compatibility modes that no software uses any more, which are slated to be removed in future releases because they’re unnecessary. It’s very common not to completely tear out a component that works, even if it retains unused vestigial features.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 16:16
  • 3
    Like other Answers, this boils down to the fact that we (some human) is doing the recognition of intelligence. It's like sending a message: without a recipient, there is no message. But the sender could be non-sentient, like when I notice big clouds coming my way and I get the message: "you'll get wet soon if you don't go inside." So, intelligence is up to the seer. We see the big face in the clouds and call it God, but that's on us. This is completely inescapable and people have to take responsibility for their assertions. Even God can't do that for them.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 10:38

Assembly theory is an approach that tries to quantify precisely how much “temporal depth” is encapsulated in a given structure by analyzing both its complexity and prevalence in a given environment. The idea is roughly that something has greater depth if it’s both highly-complex and broadly present in great numbers in the environment. This doesn’t necessarily correlate with intentionality or design, but rather with the nature of reproduction of the assembly. As far as design goes though, it does seem to help us start to answer some questions around the strangely “compact” temporality of living forms — the “mutual assembly” or recursive construction characteristic of certain biological systems. But at any rate the original intent of the complexity index was to help find a way to differentiate natural from constructed features in cosmology — so potentially helping us identify extraterrestrial structures by showing they couldn’t have happened without a certain depth in time, and so on.

  • @Mark I did post over in Biology SE looking for some confirmation that assembly theory is actually a theory, and not just a hypothesis branded theory (a PhD has to eat), so the caveat is that the claim that there are definitive mathematical methods to determine life based on biochemical signatures might be academic hype and hypothesis and not vetted science stands. As for a mathematical signature of biochemical complexity of not life, but intelligent life, "assembly theory" simply doesn't make that claim, but would be an added inference (that where's there's life, there is intelligent life).
    – J D
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 10:14
  • And certainly even if the metaphysics and then the science turns out that the assembly hypothesis ultimately is a sound theory, and then can be linked to intelligent life has no bearing on the question of the design at all. It would merely be a tool to detect intelligent life elsewhere strengthening the argument of abiogensis and evolution occur places other than earth, and that like the current quest to find planets and water elsewhere, it is definitively non-speculative to add to the list life and 'intelligence' whatever that is.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 10:18
  • @JD speculation does seem to get us in trouble often. We should stick to what we know.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 10:43
  • This is a fantastic answer and came to my mind as well on reading this question. I learned about assembly theory only relatively recently, it's very interesting and very pertinent to this question.
    – TKoL
    Commented May 13 at 10:40

In science and philosophy

There are objects for which it can be decided that a designer shaped them, but this cannot be decided for all possible objects. Deciding by properties of the object itself rather than from additional evidence is harder, as it uses much less information. A sand dune itself can be shaped from the wind in the desert, but a sand dune in the middle of new York central park tomorrow morning would likely have been put there by some agency and not wind. So context helps, and not considering context makes us less able to make good judgements.

In archeology, some objects can be attributed to humans due to their properties, like early textiles. Others objects can only be attributed to humans due to context, like simple beads found in large quantities inside grave mounds.

Some properties that allow some objects to be easily classified as designed are that they have traces of industrial processes, like being made of non-organic materials (like pure metals, glass, plastics) in shapes that are ideal for efficient factory production (rectangles) and can be assembled and disassembled via mechanism like screws. But inanimate nature of course can sometimes create similar structures like crystals, so alternative theories would have to be contemplated for each object.

Intelligence can leave other obvious taxes, like depictions (cave paintings, hieroglyphs), that indicate mental processes during their creation. But for very crude drawing and shapes, this can become impossible to decide without context, and it's of course also possible that random processes can lead to events like clouds looking like animal shapes from a given perspective.

An actual application is the search for radio signals in space from alien civilizations. To discern a signal from random noise and natural patterns, algorithms are devised that will look for traces of regularitiy in what seems random data at first sight.

In Creationism

(due to the context of this question, answers sadly also need to make reference to anti-sciences, even if religion is largely off-topic on this site)

The words that creationists and the ID sock-puppets would favor are "complexity", "probability" and "purpose", but those have not successfully been validated in the context of deciding whether objects have emerged from intelligence or otherwise.

Traditionally those have been used innumerable times in the history of humanity to wrongly attribute objects and events to agency:

Planetary movements in the sky looked so complex, gods must be moving them.

Winning the lottery seems so unlikely, gods must have decided who was worthy.

A rainy season seems to have the purpose of feeding the hungry, gods must have sent the rain.

So those words fuel gods-of-the-gaps attributions to design whenever mankind still lacks the knowledge to understand how nature unintendedly causes events and objects. Science and philosophy have understood from these innumerable examples that "complexity", "probability" and "purpose" are not viable, but creationism rightfully regards them as useful tools to impress the gullible when pushing their political agenda.

In history

Humanity, like a person growing up up, has gone through stages of theories of what is designed.

For a long time, simply everything and every event was considered designed by god for humanity. Every mountain, every sea, every cloud, every animal, every plant.

Humanity then became better at shaping things and changing environments. That led to the first distinction, objects were either created by gods for humanity, or by humans.

Humanity then went through some stages, like the age of exploration, the Renaissance, the age of enlightenment (in the "western" nations). This left humanity with an understanding that nature, without an intelligent agent controlling every move, also changed over time and changed things.

So now objects had to be classified in 3 categories, those designed by gods, those designed by humans, and those emerging from nature without intelligence. For a long time biological life firmly remained in the category of being designed by gods, because humanity lacked the knowledge and instruments to understand biological life.

Then humanity moved further up it's maturity process by understanding more and more of biology and astronomy. For life, first the way species change over time via sexual reproduction, then common ancestry, then genetics. By closing the knowledge gaps, the gods-of-the-gaps was slowly pushed out of biology. In astronomy, understanding the universe is huge, and old, and earth is not unique, front and center in it, and there might be other intelligent life.

The general categories of created by gods, created by nongods and shaped by nature remained, but the category of things attributed to gods-of-the-gaps became very tiny. So much that as a paradigm, natural science established that by default, anything not created by humans was shaped by nature, and gods (or other speculative designers) are not to be used to fill knowledge gaps anymore.

Hence only reactionary religious groups are even interested in speculating about mysterious designers shaping nature while remaining otherwise invisible. (If I said humanity has matured, I'd have to exclude the first nation tribes living deep in the amazonian rainforest, the Taliban, or the creationist in the rural south of the USA).

  • 3
    Good point, i replaced with "humanity", feel free to make word changes to make it more inclusive (but leave any downputting of creationists, they are asking to be disrespected)
    – tkruse
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 12:14

The philosophy of design is a nascent field, and it has no entries in the SEP or IEP. They tangentially address the issue in their entries about architecture here (SEP) and here (IEP). Here's my meta defense of its inclusion as philosophy. I have read exactly 1 book and no articles on it, so perhaps the contributor who asked the question has more insight at this point.

The notion of intelligence at best philosophically contentious, so 'general intelligence' is also contentious. Proponents of AGI like Goertzel are busy trying to shore up defense there's a distinction and ontological necessity for 'general intelligence'. IQ as a general measure of intelligence is controversial and is linked to biological determinism; Gould addressed statistical abuses of psychometrics in his The Mismeasure of Man. Here are a few PhilSE posts, but questions on intelligence might receive better technical treatments in PsychSE:

  • The irony of how hard it is to define 'intelligence' is pretty stunning. Reminds me of the Far Side comic with dogs in a research lab trying to understand "the doorknob principle".
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 10:45
  • 1
    @ScottRowe I love that one. I just painted a doorknob that my dog tried to chew through, in fact. :D I don't think it's hard to define intelligence. I think intelligence is simply used like the word 'got' and people presume it means one thing. Where the debate lies in what is the mind, because given someone's view on 'mind', I think one can rapidly move to a reasonable definition of intelligence.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 13:20

It depends on whether we know if the intelligent agent exists or not apriori. If we do not, then as long as the observed object is possible under our currently known causal theories, it is epistemically unjustified to believe that there is a designer, no matter how complex, “improbable”, or unintuitive it seems.

  • 1
    Basically, it just throws the ball back to the original question of the Designer existing. Can we tag these guys out once and for all?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 20:44

Great question. I have divided my answer into sections: the first three address the three aspects of the question and answers them with a direct approach, the fourth analyzes the nature of the question itself and how this suggests a deeper explanation for the answer, and the fifth is a conclusion to state my answer more clearly and succinctly. If my answer is unclear at any point, please feel free to comment asking for clarification and/or suggesting an edit.


A formal definition of intelligence is something that's been attempted by and debated between philosophers for as long as the concept has existed. There is not a general consensus, and this is for several reasons, more than could possibly be listed here. I would argue however that the two biggest reasons are 1) the fact that how we understand intelligence (much less define it) is very subjective and arbitrary, and 2) the inability to distinct between "true" intelligence and the appearance of intelligence. I think these two reasons are sufficient in answering your question and I will talk about both of them below:

  1. The assignment of intelligence is subjective and arbitrary. For example, dirt is generally considered by humans to not be intelligent. Now say Earth is discovered by a living thing that is not carbon based and has evolved in such a way that it is physically unrecognizable to us as life, but satisfies some hypothetical abstract definition such that it is intelligent. This creature would equally not recognize us as living things. Similarly, let's say that it's conception of society, language, et cetera, is also fundamentally different to ours and mutually unrecognizable. This creature would simply see us as objects which move around entirely as a result of physical laws, void of motivation or intent. We may as well be dirt to this creature. Therefore, while we each recognize ourselves as intelligent, we don't recognize the other as such. So we see that what we assign as intelligent or not is entirely dependent of our subjective experience, and therefore a general definition of intelligence, independent of the human experience (which would expose a specific nature or identity, as you said in your question), is incredibly difficult to formulate, if not impossible. Furthermore, the assignment of intelligence is also incredibly arbitrary (making it meaningless), in that there must be a cut off of sorts. That is, we recognize certain things as more or less intelligent as compared to each other, but we also recognize things as having no intelligence. This implies that there exists a cut off, as in a minimum wherein things above it are intelligent and things below aren't. If we see intelligence as a property which exists on a spectrum, the cut off point is clearly arbitrary. If we see it as a set of qualities, which may or may not exist on a spectrum, and we say that if something is absent of one of these qualities then it is not intelligent, then it's clear to see that the qualities themselves are either arbitrary or solely dependent on the subjective human experience, as aforementioned. Therefore, it's impossible to construct a general, abstract definition of intelligence which is void of a bias towards the human experience, but also encompasses what humans generally do or don't consider intelligent.

  2. It is impossible to distinct between "true"(natural) intelligence and the appearance of intelligence (artificial intelligence). I think this issue is explained well by the following thought experiment: Say you're in a prison cell. You stay here indefinitely with no form of communication to the outside world and there is a prisoner in an identical cell next to you under those same conditions. There is a miniscule gap in the wall adjoining your cells and you each have paper and pencil, by which notes may be passed through the gap. You can not speak aloud, however. The other prisoner writes in a language you can't read, say Mandarin. But, there is a book in your cell which contains Mandarin phrases and what phrases to respond with, in Mandarin. Using this book, you can effectively have a conversation in Mandarin without knowing the language, nor the content of the conversation. If you're the prisoner which speaks Mandarin, how could you ever claim that the other prisoner doesn't? How could you say they aren't intelligently deciding how to reply to your messages? This is, in essence, a metaphor for AI, such as the ChatGPT example you gave. The AI, when given an input, will give an output strictly according to its programming. Could you say that the AI "thought" about what to output? Could you even say that it "decided", much less "intelligently" decided, what to output? This, however, does not seem any different from how humans "decide" what to do(output) in a certain situation(input). Is the human brain not, in essence, functionally equivalent to the AI's programming, or furthermore, to the prisoner's book? The problem is: how could we, in general, distinct when an unknown intelligent agent has natural or artificial intelligence? It seems that we can't.

Your question doesn't require such a distinction, and even lists examples from both natural and artificial intelligence, but the absence of such a distinction has important implications which are very relevant to your question. I outline this below and continue to label it as point 2.

  1. In this case, the intelligence of these agents seems to be able to be simply broken down into the ability to output something given an input and a set of rules. This would however imply that all matter is inherently intelligent. For example, a rock in space, when input with a collision from another rock, will output a new velocity and possibly a "scar" of some sort. So then it seems that the intelligence of an agent should be defined by the degree of complexity of the rule set it uses to decide outputs. You may argue that we consider some AIs to be more intelligent than others, not because of the complexity of their programming but by how sensical their outputs are. However, this requires a standard for what "makes sense", which leads to the problem of subjectivity as outlined in the previous point. So then it seems the degree of complexity should be the deciding factor. But this leads to the problem of arbitrarity, which was also outlined in the previous point. Furthermore, isn’t the rule set of the rock the same as that of the human brain? That being the laws of physics? So then, not only is everything intelligent but everything's equally intelligent? This would make the the assignment of intelligence pretty meaningless. To resolve this, the concept of nonphysical rules can be introduced. That is, things outside of physical laws which an agent may possess that impacts how it makes decisions (e.g. free will). Personally, I would argue that these rules can't exist since something nonphysical impacting the physical world would violate conservation laws. Regardless, it can't be known whether an agent possesses a nonphysical rule or not since it inherently can't be measured. Therefore, a definition of intelligence which requires the existence or absence of nonphysical rules within an agent can't be known to encompass anything, much less the things humans typically consider intelligent.

In short, it is impossible to construct a meaningful definition of intelligence such that it encompasses the agents which humans typically call intelligent, but is abstract enough such that it is independent of the exact nature of the agent in question. This is by virtue of the definition being necessarily human centric, and therefore it's application to an agent depends on that agent's "similarity" to humans, i.e. the assignment of intelligence would depend on the nature of the agent in question. I would argue from here that intelligence is an entirely relative thing; an agent is intelligent at something or in terms of something, but not simply "intelligent". Elaborating on and more properly defining what that means, however, is not relevant to answering this question and would deserve its own discussion.


Claiming something is designed implies two things: That there is motivation/intent behind its design, and that its design has utility value to its designer. Put simply, it serves, served, or will serve a purpose. If this weren't the case, and spontaneous construction were considered design, then any physical process between objects would be design (this is a problem discussed later in this section). This purpose however, is necessarily dependent on the designer. For example, ants may construct a mound as shelter whereas humans may construct a mound to bury their dead. Furthermore, what the purpose is, and whether or not it even exists, is necessarily determined and perceived through human lenses. So then, similar to the problem with abstractly defining intelligence, a definition of design which encompasses agents a human would consider capable of design is necessarily framed by the human experience and therefore not independent of the nature of an agent. For example, could we say that ocean waves design the shores to be sandy? Well the ocean certainly does this, but does it have an abstract motivation or is the motivation purely physical? That is, is it simply "motivated" by the principle of erosion? This strongly echoes my previous points on intelligence in that it seems for a definition of design to exist independent of the human experience, it must contain a nonphysical element which influences motivation and intent (once again, free will is an example). Otherwise the motivation of any design is purely a result of physical laws (or in the language of the previous section, every output by an agent which impacts other objects, is a design on that object motivated by the input and rule set of the agent), and it would be impossible to introduce a standard independent of the human experience to differentiate what is or isn't a design. And just as before, this is not measurable and therefore can’t be known to exist within the agents humans typically consider capable of design.

Therefore, a definition of design which encompasses the agents humans typically consider capable of design, but is abstract enough to be independent of an agent's particular nature, is impossible to formulate without being meaningless. What humans recognize as design is necessarily dependent on the human experience.

Assuming we have an abstract theory of intelligence and design, would it be possible in principle to establish that some concrete object shows evidence of design by some intelligent agent (in this general abstract sense), solely by studying the properties of said object?

In order for an abstract theory of intelligence and design to exist, it must include a nonphysical element and not necessarily encompass agents a human-centric theory would encompass, as aforementioned. This nonphysical element, however, can not be measured. Therefore, no, it is not possible to establish that an object shows evidence of design by an intelligent agent solely by studying its properties.

Nature of the question

As I'm sure you've noticed, there's a certain pattern which emerged in the above passages which seems to indicate a deeper reason as to why the ideas you proposed are not possible. The essential problem lies in developing an abstraction from a particular agent's perception in order to describe any conceivable, or inconceivable, agent. The examples you gave are certainly intelligent, but only necessarily with respect to the human conception of intelligence. Any attempt to abstract this will be inherently human-centric, and therefore is not a true abstraction, or as you put it, would not be independent of "the exact nature or identity of the agent". To explain it from a different approach, the goal is to take what humans describe with a concept, and empirically construct a definition of the concept which can describe things nonhuman without human bias. The foundation of empiricism, however, is that our conclusions are solely dependent on our perception, and our perception is uniquely and necessarily shaped by the human experience. Furthermore, the concepts themselves are very human centric simply in their etymology. Intelligence and design are valued by human societies in that our ability to theorize and construct tools is very important to our survival. Having a different social and evolutionary framework of values, as other animals or abstract agents would, is something essentially inconceivable to us, particularly when considering frameworks which we don't even observe physically. Say we did have the grounds to claim a certain agent isn't very intelligent or is perhaps incapable of efficient design, and we may then cast judgement on them in a certain way for that. In an abstract space, that likely doesn't mean much (it depends on how the space itself is defined). The agent may not value those things and could equally accuse us of lacking X and being poor at Y, which it considers very important qualities. And while we may have a theory of the universe founded in intelligent design (e.g. many religions), this abstract agent may have a theory founded in XY, which is fundamentally different to ours or possibly even inconceivable to us. There would be no objective grounds however by which to judge or invalidate the other theory, for either agent. This is in fact a common argument against objective morality, in that any morality that humans construct can't actually be objective and is necessarily human centric, and the claim should instead be for a morality which is inherent to all humans (although this is of course an entirely different topic). So, in a similar fashion, intelligence and design are concepts whose meaning and inflated value have been ingrained into the human experience (whether by evolution, culture, god, etc.). To then try and define them in such a way which still satisfies how humans understand them but can also be applied to nonhuman, or even abstract, agents is impossible if not unfair. This definition will always favor intelligence which looks like human intelligence and design which looks like human design. More so, in the grand scheme of things, it simply doesn't make sense to arbitrarily take values or qualities out of the framework they were constructed in, and apply them to another agent which simply does not have the same framework. So sure, perhaps we can take an object and say that it has evidence of design by an intelligent agent, but only if that intelligence and design is close enough to what humans recognize as such. If there is indeed some cosmic definition for the concepts, it's useless to us because we can never escape our human bubble to see it, much less construct it ourselves. Again, if we theorize that an agent intelligently designed the universe, it's very much a meaningless statement because we can't know what intelligence nor design would look like for this agent, and if it is meant in the human sense of the words, then it is an entirely unjustified and human centric assumption to make about the character of this agent as well as the universe itself (I mean this in the purely analytical sense. Religious beliefs and faiths are fundamentally different, and I am not expressing any agreement or disagreement with them).

In short, the human experience is inescapable, and as such, any attempt to abstractly define intelligence and design would be necessarily human centric and how well we recognize that of another agent would depend solely on how closely that agent's expression of it is to the human conception. There is no meaningful objectivity which can be claimed, such as with abstractions in logic or linguistics (although, I believe this is even questioned). For us to even care about an agent's expression of intelligence and design is incredibly human centric, and can only tell us about the agent's relation to us, but nothing of it's nature or motivations.


In conclusion, a theory of intelligence and design is either human centric or meaningless. If a nonphysical element is introduced, then the theory may be either human centric or functional in abstraction, but meaningless in reality and therefore can't be applied to physical objects. Furthermore, the general idea of taking values and concepts that are inherently and entirely defined by the human experience and applying them to fundamentally nonhuman agents is deeply flawed.

*note: A key assumption throughout this argument is that physical laws exist and are equivalent in all frames of reference. If this weren't true then the physical laws would be objectively indeterminate, depend solely on the frame of reference (i.e. they'd be subjective), and it would be impossible to show that two frames have an equivalent set of laws. Then, any given frame could have a bias in terms of the rules or the complexity of the rules which an agent follows, allowing for a differentiation between what is or isn't intelligence/design. If this were the case however, then, given the reasoning in the above argument, an abstract theory of intelligence and design would also depend on the frame and there would be no way to show equivalence between frames, meaning it would be impossible to justify a consensus for any given theory. This would imply whether or not the properties of an object give evidence to design by an intelligent agent is entirely dependent on the frame, and a consensus or the setting of any standard would be unjustifiable. In this case, the answer to your question would be yes, but the results of it would be useless.

  • 1
    Yes. It reduces to motive and intent, as you say. This means that design as such is purposeful. So the whole Design line of argument reduces to a child's repeatedly asking "Why?" Until the adult gets tired of answering. Get tired now. Do something useful instead.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 10:44
  • 1
    " Using this book, you can effectively have a conversation in Mandarin without knowing the language, nor the content of the conversation." Ah, Searle's good old Chinese room argument. What is the other prisoner asks: "Do you really understand Mandarin, or are you looking it up in a book"? Is your book big enough to contain the question, and its reply? Can you search it fast enough? If you take long enough to reply, the other guy will get even more suspicions. @Joseph_Kopp Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 1:15

This has been of general interest in the field of algorithmic information theory for awhile now. Kolmogorov, Chaitin, Solomonoff, and Levin all addressed the question from the perspective of randomness, then moving from there to quantifying the lack of randomness. They each have a slightly different angle, but mathematically their approaches are the same.

The fundamental concept is that random sequences are computationally incompressible. Orderly sequences are compressible. We can measure this distinction with the notion of randomness deficiency, which is not computable in general but can be lower bounded with compression algorithms.

Then the question becomes, what is intelligence in relationship to randomness and order?

Interestingly, it is neither. Instead, it is something that looks like randomness, in that it is incompressible, but it is distinguishable from randomness by randomness deficiency. This is where the intelligent design concept of complex, specified information comes into the picture. The intelligence in an object is measured according to a context, which gives us a conditionalized form of the randomness deficiency.

You can read more about the complex, specified information metric in the following article, which applies it to Conway's Game of Life.

Ewert, Winston, William Dembski, and Robert J. Marks. "Algorithmic specified complexity in the game of life." IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics: Systems 45.4 (2014): 584-594.

  • Where does the Context come from? Maybe the actual 'intelligence' is in the entity that labels something intelligent? Van Gogh was no kind of painter, until long after he died.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 15:36

I agree with @CriglCragl, who said "no". We have found only one type of intelligence so far; it takes a very bold statistician to construct a general theory based on one item of data. Similarly there is only one kind of intelligent designer (small "i", small "d")on this planet, that I know of, and that is us.

Daniel Dennett juxtaposed two wonderful photos of a termite colony and La Sagrada Familia: you can find them here. We know that La Sagrada Familia had in intelligent designer, as we have information about Gaudi's life, and we have his drawings. We also know that there isn't a Boss Termite with detailed plans for the termite cathedral.

The OP might make some progress with their question by asking: how to distinguish between the intelligently designed cathedral and the termite one.

  • 1
    This looks like a comment rather than an answer
    – tkruse
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 6:14

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