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Intelligent Design in a Modern Vedic Context

Friday, 08 November 2019 / Published in Articles / 1,286 views

Intelligent Design in a Modern Vedic Context

By Leif Asmark Jensen

(Lalitanatha dasa)

Consciousness is our most immediate experience. Yet, when it comes to studying consciousness beyond one’s own conscious experience, we can only study circumstantial evidence. One such category is studies of the symptoms of a conscious action on events or physical objects. This is known as the argument from design.

An argument from design refers to the inference that a feature cannot be explained as solely the result of physical processes or attributed to chance, but is due to conscious activity. Such inferences are commonplace. For instance, archeologists study flints to see if everything can be explained as the result of natural geological processes, or if certain features, such as a series of parallel strikes, must be the result of conscious activity. If archeologists conclude the latter, they can be said to have inferred ”design” or ”intelligent design”.

Design arguments applied to nature and the universe are old stuff within philosophy, theology and science, tracing back into the pre-Christian Western world, as well as being found in other contexts, such as India’s tradition of Vedic philosophy. Appeals to design have generally been used to substantiate the existence of a Deity, adding a controversial feature to design arguments.

Cicero (106–43 BC) wrote:

“When you look at a picture or a statue, you recognize that it is a work of art. When you follow from afar the course of a ship, upon the sea, you do not question that its movement is guided by a skilled intelligence. When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?”[1]

Similar arguments were made by Socrates and Plato and other Greeks, by Augustine, Aquinas and other Christian scholastics, and by founders of modern science such as Bacon, Kepler and Newton (Newton: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”[2])

The term ’intelligent design’ has also been known in the West for centuries. Even Darwin used it: “One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions and man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.”[3]

From Scientific American in 1847: “Where must we look for this fountain but to the great storehouse of nature — the innumerable and diversified objects there were presented to our view give evidence of infinite skill and intelligent design in their adaptation to each other and to the nature of man.”[4]

Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller wrote in 1897: “It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”[5]

Even Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-developer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution, came to believe that “a Higher Intelligence”[6] guided the process.

Design arguments in India

Another ancient and rich philosophical tradition is the Vedic tradition of India, which arguably is even older than the Western, and design arguments are commonplace. Sankaracarya (app. 800) wrote:

“In the case of such things as a lump of earth or a stone, no power of contrivance is seen, but the design of special forms out of such things as clay is seen when they are superintended by potters and the like. In the same way, Material Nature transforms itself only when connected with a superintending, external intelligence.”[7]

According to Udayana (app. 900):

“Whatever possesses a cause, like a chariot, is dependent upon a prior intelligent causal agent. Similar in character is this world; therefore it is dependent upon a prior intelligent causal agent.”[8]

Ramanuja (1017-1137) criticized design arguments for their limitations. Some have even drawn a parallel to Hume’s later criticism of design arguments. Ramanuja stated that one cannot conclude the designer is God, who is omnipotent, benevolent, etc. There may be many designers, or maybe they are limited, imperfect or not even transcendental. But Ramanuja still did see that design arguments have their place to counter materialistic ideas. Thus he argued against the atheistic Sankhya philosophers:

“The Pradhana [nature] you Sankhyas affirm is not competent to produce the arrangement of this variegated world, for it is non-intelligent and not superintended by an agent understanding its essential nature. So it is in similar situations, just as wood and other materials by themselves are incompetent to construct a chariot or palace. From observation we know that unconscious materials like wood not superintended by an agent who knows their nature fail to bring about effects, and also from observation we know that materials produce effects when supervised by a knowledgeable agent. Thus the Pradhāna unsupervised by a knowledgeable agent cannot be the cause [of the world].”[9]

In the 18th century Baladeva Vidyabhusana wrote:

“Material nature is inert; as such it cannot be the cause of matter, neither as the material nor as the efficient cause. Seeing the wonderful arrangement and management of the cosmic manifestation generally suggests that a living brain is behind this arrangement, for without a living brain such an arrangement could not exist … In our practical experience we never see that inert bricks can themselves construct a big building.”[10]

In the 19th century Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) embraced traditional Vedic design arguments to show that Hinduism is in essence also monotheistic:

“We see the multifarious, wonderful universe, as well as the birth, existence, and annihilation of its different parts; hence, we naturally infer the existence of a Being who regulates the whole, and call him Supreme: in the same manner as from the sight of a pot we conclude the existence of its artificer.”[11]

More examples could be given. Suffice it to say that design arguments have always been a stable amongst Vedic philosophers.

The Modern

Intelligent Design Movement

Today design arguments are back with renewed force by the emergence of an intelligent design movement (ID) that over the past generation has captured attention. Some detractors are denouncing it as a veiled Christian movement of Biblical literalism but not everyone agrees with this pronouncement. As seen from the above, design arguments have never been the monopoly of any one particular religion or worldview. Quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Dr. Brian Josephson stated recently:

“I believe that intelligence may play a role in how evolution has occurred. One of the big mistakes of those who attack intelligent design is to regard evolution and God as mutually exclusive, so they say that someone who believes in intelligent design doesn’t believe in evolution, but that’s not the case. The statement “creationism disguised as science” is a totally false view of what has happened … Let’s see what science can tell us; that’s what intelligent design is.”[12]

Also, if ID had religious premises, how could the famous English until then atheist Anthony Flew have changed his mind and become convinced by ID that “the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design … Nothing critics can say — whether appealing to politically motivated condemnations of ID issued by pro-Darwin scientific authorities, or harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents — will change the fact that intelligent design is not a ‘faith-based’ argument.”[13]

The chemist Dr. Charles Thaxton who became an early advocate of intelligent design, stated: “The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source.”[14]

The term “intelligent design” was coined in its present usage by the British cosmologist Dr. Sir Fred Hoyle. In 1982 he stated, “If one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.”[15]

In By Design,[16] journalist Larry Witham traces the roots of the intelligent design movement in biology back to the 1950s and ’60s, and the movement itself to the 1970s. Biochemists were unraveling the secret of DNA and discovering an elaborate information processing system that included nanotechnology of unparalleled sophistication. One of the first to describe the significance of these discoveries was chemist and philosopher Dr. Michael Polanyi, who in 1967 argued that “machines are irreducible to physics and chemistry” and that “mechanistic structures of living beings appear to be likewise irreducible.” Polanyi also wrote:

“Information in the DNA can no more be reduced to chemistry than the ideas in a book can be reduced to ink and paper; something beyond physics and chemistry is encoded in DNA.”[17]

Biochemist Michael Behe would later develop Polanyi’s insights with his irreducible complexity. And mathematician William Dembski would find Polanyi’s work so influential that he set out to develop a mathematical criterion to be able to infer intelligent design with certainty which ended with his “specified complexity”.

Thus today the design argument is back with renewed force, partly due to the scientific evidence of molecular biology, partly due to theoretical advances by design theorists. Dembski thus argues that his statistical criteria of ”specified complexity” or ”specified small probability” is a sure indicator of intelligent design. He argues that if an event exhibits both a very small probability and at the same time corresponds to an independently given pattern (a ”specification”), one can with certainty infer design.

Previously design arguments were analogies where one feature known to be designed and another feature of unknown origin were compared and similarities were used to argue for the design of the latter. This argument was mainly intuitive for the question is, ”What does actually constitute sufficient similarity?” Two objects may have similarities but also show some differences (otherwise they would be identical objects) so how does one decide whether the similarities justifies a design inference or the differences speaks against it? This was Hume’s critique of the argument from analogy.

Dembski claims that Hume’s critique has been rendered void by the criterion of specified complexity. Whereever this trait of ”specified complexity” is found one can, according to Dembski, be mathematically sure that its origin is an intelligent cause. This criterion can be applied to detect design in any field. Proponents of intelligent design are quick to point out that life as well as the universe itself are rife with examples of specified complexity. Thus the argument for design has found a new strength and relevance.

Design in a Modern Vedic Context

Parallel with the emergence of the ID movement other groups of scientists with roots in Vedic philosophy have developed similar design arguments. One such group of scientists are centered around A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896-1977) who himself was a strong critic of materialistic views including Darwinism. In 1973 he founded his Bhaktivedanta Institute (BI) which attracted scientists such as chemist Dr. Thoudam Singh and mathematician Dr. Richard L. Thompson. Already in 1976, Thompson stated, referring to the newly discovered bacterial flagellum:

”We’d like to argue that the chance and molecular forces theory won’t explain things like this, but to say that there is an intelligent designer would be a sensible explanation.”[18]

Subsequently a number of publications have come out from the BI arguing for design as a better explanation for the origin and history of life. These include Mechanistic and non-Mechanistic Science by Richard Thompson, Darwin’s Secret Identity by David Webb, Origin by Richard Thompson and Michael Cremo, Forbidden Archeology also by Thompson and Cremo, Human Devolution by Cremo, Nature’s IQ by Istvan Tazi and Rethinking Darwin by myself.

Although the modern “Vedic” design arguments arose somewhat independently of what later became the ID movement, they have naturally included many of the well-developed arguments and exampes from the ID scientists. At the same time BI has also developed unique arguments inspired by Vedic philosophy, such as arguments about paranormal research, near-death experiences, reincarnation memories, the phenomenon of inspiration, and instincts and behaviours in animals defying simple natural explanations. Thus the modern Vedic inspired design arguments carry in some ways a unique approach while at the same time drawing fully on the insights of the broader ID movement.


[1] Cicero, “The Nature of the Gods,” [1972], McGregor, H.C.P., transl., Penguin: Harmondsworth UK, 1986, reprint, pp.158-159

[2] Sir Isac Newton, Principia, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1966, p. 544.

[3] Letter from Charles Darwin May 23, 1861 to J.F.W. Herschel.

[4] Scientific American, Volume 2, Issue 48, p. 381, (August 21, 1847).

[5] F. C. S. Schiller, Darwinism and Design Argument, in Humanism: Philosophical Essays, 141 (F. C. S. Schiller, New York, The Macmillan Co. 1903). This particular essay was first published in the Contemporary Review in June, 1897.

[6] Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates the Origin of Species, An Anthology of His Shorter Writings 33-34 (Charles H. Smith ed., Oxford University Press 1991).

[7] Quoted from C. Mackenzie Brown, The Design Argument in Classical Hindu Thought, International Journal of Hindu Studies 12(2):103-151, January 2008.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quoted by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami in his translation and commentation of Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 6.14-15p.

[11] Ibid. as 7.

[12] See https://evolutionnews.org/2017/12/10-of-our-top-stories-of-2017-nobel-laureate-is-80-percent-confident-in-intelligent-design/

[13] From https://evolutionnews.org/2015/12/ten-dover-myths-7/

[14] P. William Davis, Dean H. Kenyon and Charles B. Thaxton, Haughton Publishing Company 1993, p. 161.

[15] Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space (The Omni Lecture) (Enslow Publishers 1982), p. 28.

[16] Larry Witham, By Design: science and the search for God, Encounter Books, April 2003.

[17] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

[18] Richard L. Thompson, lecture in Washington DC, July 3, 1976.

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7 Responses to “Intelligent Design in a Modern Vedic Context”

  1. Sitalatma Das says :

    Despite so many supporting quotes, "Intelligent Design" is treated as pseudoscience by mainstream academia and atheists even have a court ruling to confirm that. This label is thoroughly undeserved but it is what it is – it's toxic, and no "reputable" academic journal would publish any paper with any scent of "Intelligent Design" in it.

    This raises the question – has there been a shift in Bhaktivedanta Institute's strategy? Srila Prabhupada was very proud of his scientists because they had firm academic footing and so could argue against atheism with solid scientific arguments. If our current arguments, such as this "Intelligent Design", are dismissed outright as pseudoscience and grouped together with ufology and Flat Earthers, however unfairly, then what is the point of pursuing it? Have we completely closed the door to trying to persuade the academic world?

    Without naming names, one of the keynote speakers at this recent conference also engages in practicing pseudoscience according to Wikipedia, while another has got very unflattering media coverage last year with words like "wacky", "out of their minds", and "the whole shindig has gone off the rails" accompanied by picture of people taking "gong baths".

    It's just not a reputable company from academic point of view.

  2. sdmuni108 says :

    Engaging essay, though I wonder about Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science, and perhaps even Forbidden Archeology – both authored by Sadaputa – being on same list as this author's book which near exclusively features Discovery Institute proponents, as thus readily identifies with that group and their arguments for incorporating metaphysical concerns into the practice of professional science.

    This potentially sounds contrary to essential Gaudiya Vaisnava principles endorsed by Srila Prabhupada who emphasized the limitations, if not inherent defects, of conditional perception, and how modern science as practiced by the professional disciplines, can at best but offer but an extension of conditional perception and analysis.

    In other words, confirmation of our relation with the Almighty is not to be secured through said conditioned sensual perception or even intellectual wrangling. Mechanistic did not discuss any such agenda. Arguably even Forbidden Archeology, which focused on historical anomalies found in the archeological record.

  3. sdmuni108 says :

    As for my own observations as someone who participated at this conference as co-director of the Richard L. Thompson Archives:

    The Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies Mission Statement published in the conference literature, closely aligns with the original mission statement laid down by the institution’s founding charter members while Srila Prabhupada was present for the first BI conference held in Vrindavan 1977. True, while some of this year's leading speakers were known for cutting edge research along disciplinary boundaries, they also pursued their programs under well-established affiliations with leading academic institutions such as Princeton University and the University of Arizona. Other featured speakers with arguably more orthodox agendas held affiliations with the University of Florida, Utah State University, the California State Universities, the University of Alberta (Canada), the University of Queensland (Australia), along with numerous other respected international institutions.

    As for presentations involving intelligent design facilitated by the conference, while the Bhaktivedanta Institute certainly sympathizes with a broad theistic appreciation of the natural world, it did not otherwise endorse any particular speaker or institutional agenda within this debate. A central purpose of this year's conference was to foster dialogue between comparable and competing discourse within the world of science and religion. By all appearances, the Bhaktivedanta Institute remains true to Prabhupada’s vision.

  4. Sitalatma Das says :

    In as much as Wikipedia articles on science matter (and they do – a lot), above mentioned Intelligent Design, Discovery Institute, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab, and even our own "Forbidden Archaeology" are all classified as "pseudoscience". I've already quoted very unflattering media characterization of the program affiliated with the university of Arizona, which is also available on Wikipedia.

    Given that people presenting these programs were honored as keynote speakers, it does leave an impression that Bhaktivedanta Institute indeed promotes pseudoscience. Any devotee who gets enthusiastic about Intelligent Design presented in this article and assumes that it's a legitimate branch of science is setting himself up for a nasty and pleasant surprise if tries to present it to someone else. Actually, it's not pseudoscience but trying to prove that this categorization is undeserved is a very challenging task.

    Meanwhile Dembsky has retired from promoting ID some five years ago and Behe's last book was in 2013, too. Princeton lab was closed in 2007. But "gong baths" in Arizona are presumably still going on.

    And all of these programs have nothing to do with Bhakti, nor with Vedanta, nor with any other Vedic theory like Sankhya. Personally, I believe that we do have to know what is going there and their experience can be very useful for us, too, so in that sense conference was a success and is very much welcome, but it's only a background for actual Bhagavatam based science which is yet to emerge.

  5. sdmuni108 says :

    All good points. Having said that, Wikipedia is not considered a definitive academic authority, but rather a publicly edited encyclopedia forum. Useful, important, influential, to be sure. Without doubt, the term "pseudoscience" possesses an unfavorable connotation.

    Arguably an institution like the Bhaktivedanta Institute does not promote material science in any form in sense of its relation to sankhya, jnana, other forms of empiricism – coincidently tentative and relative as per contemporary professional disciplinary standards held in esteem within the sciences, and drawn from conditional modes of perception.

    To be sure, everything can be engaged in the service of bhakti as everything offers utility. Perhaps that is the point. There are many audiences engaged in both the broad public as well as within disciplined academic discourse concerning the relationship between science and religion that invites proactive engagement with scholarly discipline.

  6. Sitalatma Das says :

    Wikipedia sure is not an ultimate authority on what is considered "science" and what is not, but science itself lacks such a body. In every discipline there are professional organizations and peer reviewed magazines but if one decides to create a parallel structure no one can stop him, and this is what Christians did with their Discovery Institute. Now THEY get to decide which objections to Darwinism are acceptable as "science" and which aren't.
    Otherwise we talk about "mainstream" and "academia", which are ideas. Who creates these ideas and who controls them? They don't just appear as a sequence of nerve impulses in someone's brain. And how do we go about confronting them? Perhaps a change of strategy is indeed warranted. Perhaps we can study the example of Srila Prabhupada himself who started from the bottom with "Back to Godhead", then tried to reach the top by meeting Indian leaders, then translated Srimad Bhagavatam for the intelligent class in the West, but ultimately found a fertile ground among generation that had outgrown ideas presented by the mainstream.
    Mainstream academia is not going to play fair anyway, as we have experienced with "Forbidden Archaeology", and there are many eager people now who are dissatisfied with Darwinian dogma or want to challenge the sanctity of the scientific method itself. These dogmas have their own shelf life and it's largely over. Lots of people do not want to be constrained by them and they find ways to flow around without disturbing the old guard. So this could be a good time to present our own take on what science should be. On this point, I'm not sure how Sankhya got grouped together with empiricism – because "Only the ignorant speak of devotional service [karma-yoga] as being different from the analytical study of the material world [Sāṅkhya]." BG 5.4

  7. Ajit Krishna says :

    Hare Krishna

    The epistemology used to promote ID is contrary to Vaisnava epistemology for the following reasons:

    Krishna consciousness is self-authenticating (svatah-pramana). It cannot be independently proven by any outside evidence. It is itself the only ultimate foundation of all evidences and proofs. So without presupposing the truth of God as He is presented in the Vedic scriptures we cannot understand anything.

    To presuppose Krishna consciousness and Vedic knowledge is not unnatural. It is not blind faith. We already have it in us:

    “There is inclination in everyone, but by artificial means, they have been checked. Otherwise, normally, this inclination is there in everyone’s heart. Nitya-siddha kṛṣṇa-bhakti sādhya kabhu naya. It is not an artificial imposition.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.12 — Vrndavana, October 23, 1972)

    And since we already have it in us it is impossible for us to not presuppose it without engaging in self-deception.

    To be continued…

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