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Tag Archives: Intelligent Design

Science stoppers and starters

An inference of intelligent design (ID), or any version of creationism, or whatever might hint at the supernatural is often considered a science stopper. See, for example, this and the final chapter of Stanley’s book reviewed earlier. Look at two key examples from the ID literature: Dembski’s design inference and Behe’s irreducible complexity inference. Do these stop further investigation?

One answer is Yes, because ID has a whiff of the supernatural, which some admit or boldly declare, and this violates naturalism. Stanley is right that the exclusion of the supernatural appears arbitrary, as a metaphysical restriction to science. Then who is really the science stopper here? Isn’t it those who insist that science cannot investigate anything with a whiff of the supernatural?

Another yes answer is because these authors have not followed up with more scientific results based on this inference. That is like saying, “I reject your A, B, C because you haven’t followed it up with D, E, F.” But if you aren’t convinced by A, B, C, how are you going to accept any D, E, F that depends on A, B, C? Show us your willingness to accept A, B, C first, and then your desire for D, E, F will be plausible.

Contrary to their critics, the ID community is not a well-heeled group of researchers. Unlike mainstream scientists, they have no funding from government sources. They have no state schools in which they can be employed and also teach or research ID because if any whiff of ID work becomes known, they will lose such employment. So it may take some patience waiting for further ID research.

But an inference of intelligent design or irreducible complexity should be a science starter. These are essentially discoveries of discontinuities, which should lead to new classifications and further research. The presence of a particular irreducible complexity, for example, indicates a particular class or type of organism. What are all of these classes or types? And what is the relationship between them? Here is an opportunity to conduct a whole program of science research.

Discerning design

Indeed, the commonplace distinction between the fact of evolution and the mechanism of evolution may apply equally well to design—recognition of a fact of design need not be anchored to an understanding of the mechanisms by which design is introduced into natural phenomena. Incidentally, that point was already made by Paley. (And in fact Dembski’s Design Inference can be read as an attempt to construct an empirical approach to identifying facts of design independent of identifying design mechanisms.)

–Del Ratzsch, “Design Theory and its Critics”

Aristotle argued that a full explanation required four kinds of “causes” (more like “becauses” or explanatory factors): final, formal, efficient, and material. Francis Bacon argued that science should focus on efficient and material causes and leave the rest to the metaphysicians. Intelligent design (ID) theorists are in effect saying that formal causes (designs, plans) should be considered in science, even if final causes are left for others to sort out.

It is unquestionable that we cannot speak much about biology without using some teleological and design language. Naturalistic scientists see this as mere window-dressing that could be eliminated in principle. As for bringing design (back) into science, the scientific community is still Baconian. Some say, Show us the designer and the purpose of the design before we consider it.

Is it possible to discern design without specifying a designer and a purpose or intention? Yes, it is. That is because design, any design, must have one key feature: it must address multiple constraints. Now constraints are not intentions. They just limit the solution space in a certain way.

Consider explanations of law and/or chance. If something happens by law, say a planet moves in a fixed orbit, it doesn’t happen by chance, which would mean unpredictable movement. If something happens by chance, say the shapes of clouds, it isn’t predictable by law except in a general way that leaves open many possibilities. These are opposite explanations and so opposite kinds of phenomena.

But consider then phenomena that is partially law-like and partially chance-like, say the varieties of languages. There are patterns that repeat but there are so many variations we cannot really predict what a newly discovered language will be like. We conclude that language is neither a product of law nor of chance. This means language is designed.

Design is a mean between the extremes of law and chance. If there is only one option, there is no design. If there is effectively no limit on options, there is no design. It is only when there are multiple options and multiple limits on options that design exists. There must be a choice, but not an arbitrary choice, for design to exist.

Are there methods for detecting design? Yes. Entropy is one. When entropy is neither a minimum or a maximum but something in-between, there is evidence of design. Dembski’s explanatory filter is another method. Applied to life forms, there is clear evidence of design in the biological realm. If we follow the evidence and don’t exclude design, we will conclude that design is very much part of biology.

One response of evolutionists is that a mean between the extremes of law and chance may just happen to turn out that way because of evolutionary mechanisms. I would say, first, a mechanism is a kind of design. So-called genetic algorithms show how we can use this method to design things. Second, that does not answer the second-order question: how did this mechanism arise? By law or by chance? An evolutionist would likely answer Chance. But then this is only a first-order design, a single design method that cannot be expected to work in general. A universal design method must be designed itself. Design must be all the way down to explain the myriad of life forms that exist.

Return of the God Hypothesis

I attended a seminar recently with Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. He’s a good speaker who talked mostly about his book Darwin’s Doubt and anthropic fine tuning. Here are some highlights and things I hadn’t heard before from an ID speaker:

  • He spoke not only about design but also about “a designing mind”. There was a willingness to talk about the designer.
  • He contrasted Darwin’s modest rhetoric with his popular defenders, then and now, who engage in overstatement.
  • He emphasized that evolutionary biologists are questioning the mechanism for evolution (not just Darwin critics).
  • He critiqued the Artifact Hypothesis, which blames the Cambrian explosion on the incomplete preservation of fossils.
  • He emphasized that the Burgess Shale and other finds have, instead of filling in gaps, increased the number of gaps in the fossil record. The more we’ve looked, the more the discontinuities we find.
  • He said the discontinuities go down to about the family level. There is common ancestry only within limits.
  • He emphasized that the number of ways that mutations can go wrong is very much more than the number of ways they can go right. And mutations early in development are the most fatal.
  • He was favorable toward ‘natural genetic engineering’ — that mutations aren’t random.
  • He explained why he uses Inference to the Best Explanation and how Darwin used it, too (and called it vera causa).
  • He noted that Lyell’s principle of using only causes now in operation applies to intelligence as a cause.
  • His main argument is that intelligence is ‘causally adequate’ to explain the origin of biological information (and others aren’t).
  • He summarized the fine tuning argument, that ‘the fabric of the universe is designed (for life) from the beginning’. “Fine tuning implies a fine tuner.”
  • He pointed out that biological information is needed after the beginning of the universe, so deism is wrong. Since we know that created agents affect nature, there’s no reason to deny divine affects/miracles.
  • In response to questions, he said that the Cambrian explosion was a creation event.
  • I asked if he or his colleagues have addressed Sober’s likelihood argument and he said his ‘causal adequacy’ argument is immune to Bayesian attack and that others are addressing Bayesianism.
  • In response to a question about YEC, he noted that some IDers are YECers, but he said he starts from evidence instead of authority (the Bible) and has confidence that ultimately the books of nature and scripture will be seen to agree.