The Design Inference:
Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities


author: William A. Dembski

publisher: Cambridge University Press

publication date: September 1998

number of pages: 260

list price: $59.95


The Design Inference appeared with Cambridge University Press September 1998 in the series Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction and Decision Theory. The inside dustjacket reads as follows:

How can we identify events due to intelligent causes and distinguish them from events due to undirected natural causes? If we lack a causal theory, how can we determine whether an intelligent cause acted? This book presents a reliable method for detecting intelligent causes: the design inference.

The design inference uncovers intelligent causes by isolating the key trademark of intelligent causes: specified events of small probability. Just about anything that happens is highly improbable, but when a highly improbable event is also specified (i.e., conforms to an independently given pattern) undirected natural causes lose their explanatory power. Design inferences can be found in a range of scientific pursuits from forensic science to research into the origins of life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This challenging and provocative book shows how incomplete undirected causes are for science and breathes new life into classical design arguments. It will be read with particular interest by philosophers of science and religion, other philosophers concerned with epistemology and logic, probability and complexity theorists, and statisticians.

"As the century and with it the millennium come to an end, questions long buried have disinterred themselves and come clattering back to intellectual life, dragging their winding sheets behind them. Just what, for example, is the origin of biological complexity and how is it to be explained? We have no more idea today than Darwin did in 1859, which is to say no idea whatsoever. William Dembski's book is not apt to be the last word on the inference to design, but it will surely be the first. It is a fine contribution to analysis, clear, sober, informed, mathematically sophisticated and modest. Those who agree with its point of view will read it with pleasure, and those who do not, will ignore it at their peril."

David Berlinski, mathematician,
author of The Tour of the Calculus

The following two endorsements will appear on the back cover:


Dembski has written a sparklingly original book. Not since David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has someone taken such a close look at the design argument, but it is done now in a much broader post-Darwinian context. Now we proceed with modern characterizations of probability and complexity, and the results bear fundamentally on notions of randomness and on strategies for dealing with the explanation of radically improbable events. We almost forget that design arguments are implicit in criminal arguments "beyond a reasonable doubt," plagiarism, phylogenetic inference, cryptography, and a host of other modern contexts. Dembski's analysis of randomness is the most sophisticated to be found in the literature, and his discussions are an important contribution to the theory of explanation, and a timely discussion of a neglected and unanticipatedly important topic.

William Wimsatt, philosopher of biology, University of Chicago

In my view, Dembski has given us a brilliant study of the precise connections linking chance, probability, and design. A lucidly written work of striking insight and originality, The Design Inference provides significant progress concerning notoriously difficult questions. I expect this to be one of those rare books that genuinely transforms its subject.

Jon P. Jarrett, philosopher of physics,
University of Illinois at Chicago


Endorsements of The Design Inference


In The Design Inference William Dembski asks, how do we know that something has been purposely arranged? how do we know there is a mind behind a particular event? In answer Dembski constructs the formal logical arguments necessary for rigorous evaluation of design hypotheses. This book should be on the shelf of every person who has intuitively grasped that life and the universe are not the products of chance, but has thus far lacked the conceptual tools to rigorously defend that idea.

Michael Behe,
professor of biochemistry, Lehigh University,
author of Darwin's Black Box

The question of whether you can an infer a "designer" from the study of nature is anathema to many scientists. It seems to hearken back to a dark and superstitious era, when we invoked God as a convenient explanation for all we did not know. Without a systematic, quantitative means for evaluating the evidence, however, such assertions reflect more a philosophical prejudice than a statement of science. Through his work on establishing the complexity-specification criterion, Dr. Dembski is making a critical step in moving the discussion away from such subjectivity, and into the realm of rational analysis in the best tradition of scientific inquiry.

Robert Kaita,
Principal Research Physicist,
Plasma Physics Laboratory, Princeton University

Dembski's book is a serious and valuable attempt to evaluate the scientific status of the concept of design. The oft repeated observation that teleological questions lie beyond the remit of science has perhaps obscured an important distinction between the detection of whether there is purpose and the discovery of that purpose. Although the latter is beyond the remit of science, Dembski argues in connection with the former, that the fact of design may be scientifically detectable. His lucid and rigourous analysis of the design inference based on the concept of specified complexity deserves to be read by all who have an interest in this subject.

John Lennox,
professor of mathematics,
University of Wales

The publication of William A. Dembski's The Design Inference by Cambridge University Press is one of the most significant events in recent intellectual history. It signals a breakthrough: the acknowledgement on the part of the academic and scientific establishment, for the first time in over 60 years, of the fact that the concept of intelligent design may have a legitimate role to play in our scientific understanding of nature. Dembski's pioneering work on the philosophy and theory of information is something no serious student of the foundations and methodology of science can afford to ignore. This book will substantially alter the shape of contemporary discussions about the nature and presuppositions of science.

Robert Koons,
professor of philosophy,
University of Texas at Austin

From ancient times, every civilization has had the intuition that the world is designed, but now Dembski has offered rigorous criteria for distinguishing intelligent design from natural causes. This is a real intellectual breakthrough, and makes the detection of design a proper part of science itself.

Chuck Colson, chairman, Prison Fellowship Ministries


Detecting design and distinguishing it from natural causation is one of the things science frequently does, but understanding of this subject has been impeded by ideological prejudice. William Dembski's superb analysis brings design theory into mainstream science. I predict that it will have an enormous influence over the science and philosophy of the 21st century. Dembski is one of the most important of the "design" theorists who are sparking a scientific revolution by legitimating the concept of intelligent design in science. At some point not far in the future, scientists will be saying "of course biological organisms are intelligently designed," and "of course neo-Darwinism was never more than a pseudoscientific philosophical ideology like Freudianism and Marxism." When that happens, William Dembski will deserve a lot of the credit.

Phillip E. Johnson,
professor of law, University of California at Berkeley,
author of Darwin on Trial

William Dembski's book The Design Inference shows, contrary to popular opinion, that design inferences are NOT unscientific, but are actually employed routinely in several scientific disciplines. Better yet, Dembski provides clear objective criteria for inferring design, and thus dispels the myth that design is inherently arbitrary and subjective. This groundbreaking book will go a long way toward liberating biology from the straitjacket of Darwinism and promoting future progress.

Jonathan Wells, Ph.D. (theol.), Ph.D. (biol.),
Department of Molecular & Cell Biology,
University of California at Berkeley

When we wrote The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, we pointed out the immense improbabilities of an accidental origin of life. The inference that this somehow implies an intelligent designer was reasonable, but too subjective. In The Design Inference, Dr. William Dembski has provided a clear conceptual basis for evaluating the significance of such improbable events as the origin of life. The importance of this extremely insightful contribution cannot be overstated. I think this new paradigm will become the norm by which improbable events can be evaluated in many different areas of scientific investigation where assessing the possibility of intelligent intervention is necessary.

Walter Bradley,
professor of mechanical engineering, Texas A&M,
co-author of The Mystery of Life's Origin

Dembski's Design Inference is a powerful shot in the culture wars between naturalism and theism, for it shows us that the existence of intelligent design is rigorously defensible.

Robert C. Newman, Ph.D. (astrophysics)
Director, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute

Even the most vociferous critics of the venerable teleological argument for God's existence (the so-called argument from design), such as Hume, Kant, and Darwin, have testified to the intuitive force of that argument. But they have insisted that the impression of intelligent design in nature, however irresistible, must be ignored or suppressed because that impression cannot be given a rigorous formulation. Now a brilliant newcomer, trained in philosophy, mathematics, and science, claims to have met successfully the challenge of the critics. Drawing upon design-detection techniques in such diverse fields as forensic science, artificial intelligence, cryptography, SETI, intellectual property law, random number generation, and so forth, William Dembski argues that specified complexity is a sufficient condition of inferring design and that, moreover, such specified complexity is evident in nature. Never since the time of Paley has the teleological argument seemed so compelling. Both the proponents of natural theology as well as her critics will be forced to deal with the argument of this ground-breaking and important book

William Lane Craig, Ph.D. (theol.), Ph.D. (phil.),
lecturer, apologist, author of numerous books,
co-author of Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford)

Professor Bill Dembski's thesis in The Design Inference is an important breakthrough in the philosophy of science, deserves, and will readily command, a broader readership. I am recommending his book both to my professional colleagues and to friends and students who are interested in how probable reason operates in ordinary inferences and in our assumptions about the nature of science. Dembski's writing is precise, forceful and appeals both to scholars and to reflective lay readers.

John Angus Campbell,
professor of communications, University of Memphis;
President, American Association for the
Rhetoric of Science & Technology

Dembski has written the most important book on the topic of design to appear in living memory. One simply cannot understand current issues in science and religion without reading it. It is seminal. It also has the virtue of being what only the great books are: readable and clear. Anyone interested in science cannot afford to miss this book.

John Mark Reynolds,
professor of philosophy, Biola University;
Director, Torrey Honors Institute