In December 1994, I was in the middle of writing my philosophy dissertation for the University of Illinois at Chicago while also working on a masters of divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Visiting my parents in the Tucson area for the Christmas break, I was pondering what title to put on my dissertation. The dissertation focused on small-probability events used in chance-elimination arguments. Although the dissertation addressed some long-standing questions in the foundations of statistical reasoning, I also had my eye on bigger fish. Two years earlier, in the summer of 1992, I had spent several weeks with Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson in Cambridge, England, to explore how to revive design as a scientific concept, using it to elucidate biological origins as well as to refute the dominant materialistic understanding of evolution (i.e., neo-Darwinism).
Such a project, if it were to be successful, clearly could not merely give a facelift to existing design arguments for the existence of God. Indeed, any designer that would be the conclusion of such statistical reasoning would have to be far more generic than any God of ethical monotheism. At the same time, the actual logic for dealing with small probabilities seemed less to directly implicate a designing intelligence than to sweep the field clear of chance alternatives. The underlying logic therefore was not a direct argument for design but an indirect circumstantial argument that implicated design by eliminating what it was not.
And so, on a bright December day in 1994 in Green Valley, Arizona, where my parents were retired, the term “design inference” hit me as capturing exactly what it is that this logic of dealing with small probabilities was attempting to accomplish. I wanted to avoid undue resonances with the design arguments of natural theology. At the same time, these were not pure eliminative arguments that simply told you that certain chance hypotheses were inadequate — design really was being implicated. I knew then that I had the title of my dissertation, a title that stayed in place as the dissertation was revised and then published with Cambridge University Press in 1998:The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities.