Intelligent Design

I’ve seen this statistic cited various places, as evidence that most all Americans reject the standard Darwinian theory of evolution (but that things are improving):

In 2008 14% of people polled by Gallup agreed that “man evolved over millions of years”, up from 9% in 1982.

The problem with this statistic is that, if I were asked about the claim “man evolved over millions of years”, I would (after wondering what exactly they meant) be inclined to say that claim is false. Homo sapiens has only been around for a few hundred thousand years; it hasn’t been evolving for millions of years. I wonder how many people polled by Gallup are thinking along my lines when they disagree with the statement?

I read Niall Shanks’s book God, the Devil, and Darwin when it first came out in 2004, and I was disappointed. While there was the occasional interesting argument in the book, overall it was weak on new ideas and strong on rhetorical attacks. Frankly, I expected better from something published by Oxford University Press. 

I recently came across a couple reviews of the book which are worth reading. Del Ratzsch has a well-thought-out and detailed review, where he argues for the following take:

In his straining eagerness to denigrate anything associated with ID, Shanks inflates the rhetoric, misconstrues history, blurs important distinctions, and seriously skews the views of various ID advocates.

Also, Neil Manson makes similar points:

IDT certainly merits severe criticism, on social and political grounds as well as philosophical ones. But do we really need to be told page after page that IDT proponents are “extremist” and “fundamentalist”? 

In his discussion of Christian morality (pp. 232-3) did he really need to drop references to “pedophile priests,” “twisted televangelists,” white supremacists, and Adolf Hitler? If you want to read this sort of thing, buy a copy of Hillary’s Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton’s Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House. I expect better from a philosophy book.

I’m glad that people whose work I respect, like Ratzsch and Manson, were also bothered by the tone of Shanks’s book. 

And setting aside tone, there are philosophical problems too. For example, as Ratzsch trenchantly points out:

it seems ironic that after belaboring ID advocates for providing no mechanism for the allegedly designed cosmic fine tuning, Shanks reveals that he thinks that the (apparent) fine tuning was a result of ‘blind chance or luck’ — a view which would itself seem to be a bit short on specific mechanism. 

Here’s how Ratzsch concludes his review:

As indicated at the outset, I do think that ID has some worrisome and signicant shortcomings, and I think that as discussion both professional and lay continues to heat up both in the U.S. and elsewhere, that a rigorous, accurate, penetrating, careful and balanced critique of ID would be enormously valuable. Unfortunately, this book isn’t it.

I hope that my forthcoming book (Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design) goes some way toward living up to Ratzsch’s desiderata. My book provides some critique of intelligent design, as well as some critique of the unfair attacks on intelligent design that emanate from people like Shanks.

I’m not sure what to think of this, but I figured I’d pass along the information that I made Access Research Network’s list of the top ten “Darwin and Design” news stories for 2008. (Check out #2.) Also see a somewhat more detailed version of the list here.

UPDATE: An audio discussion by the ARN folks of the top ten list,  led by ID the Future podcaster Casey Luskin, is available here. The discussion of #2 starts at the 24:45 minute mark.

I was happy to see this positive press (well, a positive blog mention) of my article “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”. The author of the blog summarizes my paper as follows:

So what has Monton done? He’s shown how the IDers’ main arguments fall flat while still allowing for the possibility of God.

At first, I thought that this summary oversold what I accomplish in my paper, but upon further reflection, I think the author has it right. I don’t show that all the IDers’ arguments fall flat (I think some are somewhat plausible), and I don’t show that arguments for ID can’t be successful (it’s possible that they could be), but I do show that the main arguments that IDers have actually given are flawed. 

“Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, by the way, is forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume II.

UPDATE: Another positive blog mention of my paper is available here.

A key reason I got involved in the intelligent design debates is that I was unhappy with some of the standard criticisms of ID given in the literature. Of course there are lots of bad arguments for ID out there — there are bad arguments given for every position. But it’s unfair to focus on the bad arguments, when there are better arguments that are given — or even when there are better arguments that could be given (even though they currently aren’t being given by the ID proponents). 

Similarly, it’s unfair to saddle ID proponents with their history. Just because they espoused religious views in the past in conjunction with ID, or treated ID as a lot like creationism, that doesn’t follow that the doctrine of ID has to be understood religiously, or like creationism, now. It’s perfectly legitimate for one to make changes to the doctrine one is espousing, and it’s unfair for critics to simply focus on the past bad doctrines proponents used to espouse, when there are more plausible doctrines being espoused now. 

Part II of my interview on the ID the Future podcast is now available here.

I recently taped a few interviews with Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute for the ID the Future podcast, and the first one is now available.

This should go without saying, but just to be clear, my doing an interview with the Discovery Institute does not entail that I endorse the ideas of the Discovery Institute.

In response to my previous post, I got an email from Nick Matzke, a biology grad student at Berkeley who formerly worked for the National Center for Science Education (a prominent anti-intelligent design group). He suggested that I could respond to his email on his blog, so I thought I’d do so. There was a lot to his email but I’ll pick out one line of argument. 

Here’s what Matzke said about my previous post (with typos corrected):

Unfortunately I think it shows that you’ve been reading ID literature a bit too much without detailed critique! My primary beef is your uncritical use of “chance”, which exactly mirrors the uncritical use of “chance” by Dembski, Ratzsch, et al.

Basically, except perhaps in the case of quantum mechanics, the term “chance” is *scientifically* just a statement about human uncertainty in an outcome due to its being caused by deterministic causes that interact in a complex and unpredictable way.

But in the ID literature, and in your blog, “chance” is opposed to “design”, and when this occurs, “chance” implies metaphysical meaninglessness, “things just happen”, God-is-being-ruled-out, etc. Even worse is when the term “chance” is equated with “natural causes”, which is also something you do, following the ID guys. But natural causes as commonly understood are anything but “chance.” It is not “chance” that water flows downhill, that canyons form as a result, that hard rocks erode one way and soft rocks another, etc. Similarly, the key force explaining “design” in biology, natural selection, is explicitly and obviously the opposite of anything resembling a “chance” process.

To sum up: The correct thing to do, if one is interested in this, is ask if something is due to “design” or “natural causes”, not “chance”.

What Matzke is presumably complaining about is this line from my previous post:

If that reaction didn’t have any substantive effects, we would probably conclude that the reaction happened as a result of chance processes. 

To be honest, I don’t think Matzke’s criticism is especially important; I see this as just an issue of terminology. It’s true that intelligent design proponents often use the term “chance” to refer to undesigned processes, and I could see how someone who wasn’t familiar with what they were talking about would assume that they are talking about purely chancy processes, when in fact they are not. But once one gets familiar with the terminology, one knows what intelligent design proponents are talking about, and I don’t think it’s a big deal to use the term “chance” the way that intelligent design proponents do, as long as everyone is clear about what it means in this context. 

But that said, I think that chance plays a more fundamental role in science than Matzke thinks it does. There are two ways in which this is the case.

First, Matzke quickly sets aside quantum mechanics, but in fact quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we have concerning physical objects and how they interact. And, according to most interpretations of quantum mechanics, most all physical processes are chancy processes, in the sense that there are multiple possible outcomes that have a non-zero probability of occurring. For example, consider the textbook example of a Newtonian deterministic process, a billiard ball that knocks into another billiard ball and starts it moving. According to quantum mechanics, the wave function of a particle has non-zero value in an unbounded region of space, and that means that there is some non-zero probability that, when the location of the particle is measured, the particle will be arbitrarily far from its starting point. The same holds for collections of particles, and hence, when the billiard ball hits the second billiard ball, there’s a non-zero probability that the second billiard ball will spontaneously end up in the next town over. Obviously, this probability is very small, but the important fact is that it’s non-zero. I would say that any process that has multiple possible outcomes, where each outcome has a non-zero probability of occurring, is a chancy process, and thus billiard ball interactions are chancy. The same holds for flowing water forming canyons, and so forth. 

Here’s the second way in which I think chance plays a more fundamental role in science than Matzke thinks it does. Let’s set aside quantum mechanics, as he does, and let’s suppose that the laws of physics are fully deterministic. Matzke says elsewhere in his email that

the natural Oklo nuclear reactor which you vaguely mentioned was not the product of “chance”, it was just the right combination of uranium ore coming into contact with groundwater.

But what accounts for the existence of the right amount of uranium ore in that location? And what accounts for the existence of the groundwater in that location? There are complex physical processes that led to those events occurring, and (given a fully determinstic theory of physics) those complex physical processes can be traced back to the initial state of the universe (assuming, that is, that the universe had an initial state). So now we can ask the question: why did the universe have that initial state, as opposed to some other initial state that wouldn’t have led to the natural Oklo nuclear reactor? Presumably there was no quantum phenomenon that led to probabilities for the various possibilities for the initial conditions. But in the absence of a designer, my opinion is that it makes sense to hold that it was a matter of chance that the initial conditions of the universe were what they were. And thus, it makes sense to hold that physical processes that happen as a result of the initial conditions being what they are are chancy physical processes. 

(For more on different ways of understanding the terminology of “chance”, I recommend Alan Hajek’s article on interpretations of probability.)

Suppose I did start using the “natural causes” terminology instead, as Matzke recommends. I’d still be opening myself to critique. Prominent philosopher of physics John Norton has argued that the notion of causation is a folk scientific notion; it’s not a concept that one gets from fundamental physics. Thus, if I started using the “natural causes” terminology, I could see someone who has read Norton complaining that I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of folk science; I should be thinking in terms of fundamental physics, and in fundamental physics causation plays no role. 

In sum, as is so typical with language, there may not be an ideal term to exactly capture what intelligent design proponents mean by “chance” and what Matzke means by “natural causes”. But that doesn’t matter, as long as we understand what we’re talking about.

The question of how we detect design is a question that both atheists and theists can equally well engage in. The question comes up when one is engaged in the project of looking for scientific evidence for the existence of a supernatural God, but the question also comes up when, for example, one ponders what structures one would have to find on a planet for one to conclude that the planet is probably inhabited by intelligent aliens. 

William Dembski famously answers that, to infer design, one must find specified complexity. While I won’t try to argue this here, I share the opinion of many that his notion of specification isn’t that well worked out. Del Ratzsch agrees with Dembski that complexity isn’t enough, but Ratzsch argues that what it takes in addition to complexity is mind-affinity, as well as factors that would be relevant to the intent an agent would have to realise a particular value. (Ratzsch doesn’t have a good name for this latter sort of factor; let’s call it “value-affinity”.) 

By “mind-affinity”, Ratzsch is getting at patterns that match patterns that a mind would be expected to create. For example, if we saw “John 3:16” spelled out using rocks on the side of a mountain, we would think that that distribution of rocks was the pattern of design, not chance. With value-affinity, Ratzsch is talking about effects that an agent would want to realize in the course of realizing some value. For example, there is evidence that in the distant past there was a nuclear reaction that happened in a river, not as a product of human agency. If that reaction didn’t have any substantive effects, we would probably conclude that the reaction happened as a result of chance processes. But if that reaction was causally efficacious in producing intelligence in human ancestors, and intelligence couldn’t have been produced any other way, we would think it more probable that the reaction happened as a result of design. 

In my opinion, Ratzsch is giving a more promising answer than Dembski. Ratzsch’s discussion of mind-affinity and value-affinity on pages 61-69 of his book Nature, Design, and Science is quite brilliant. It’s disappointing that the intelligent design literature focusses on Dembski’s answer and not Ratzsch’s.

I’ll be participating in “The Great Debate” in Fort Worth on November 7th and 8th, talking about intelligent design and the existence of God. The other debaters will be David Berlinski, Denis Alexander, and Lawrence Krauss. You can see the promotional flyer here.

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