Intelligent Design

There is an interesting passage in Steve Fuller’s book Science vs. Religion? where he basically explains why his testimony helped lead to the defense losing in the Dover case. (Fuller testified on behalf of the school board, but didn’t do a very good job promoting their side, and Judge Jones, in his decision, cited Fuller as providing evidence for Jones’s opinion that intelligent design is religion, and not science.) Fuller writes:

The judge cited me a dozen times in his ruling, unsurprisingly, from whenever I had said something revealing or critical of IDT [intelligent design theory]. In the judge’s mind, the case turned on whether IDT is “really” religion and not science. Indeed, this forced choice of “either religion or science” was  the one constraint to which my testimony had to conform, in the eyes of the defense lawyers. However, my own view … is that science and religion are not “separate but equal,” as the Kitzmiller verdict suggests, but rather are substantially overlapping modes of inquiry. The spirit of that position remained present in my testimony, which gave Judge Jones the opportunity to use it to bolster an exclusively religious interpretation of IDT. (p. 98)

Given that that’s Fuller’s view, the defense really made a mistake having him testify on their behalf. Given that Fuller was the only philosophy-of-science-oriented expert witness that they had, it’s not surprising that they lost.

Here, I thought, was the most insightful passage in the book Flock of Dodos (the book I talked about in my previous post):

While it’s certainly true that a majority of Americans are supporters of either creationism or creationism’s post-adolescent older sibling, Intelligent Design, this need not necessarily translate into any horrible national policy implementations. According to a recent Newsweek poll, for example, more than half of Americans believe in the Rapture, but Congress has yet to make any appropriations for a viable post-apocalypse government framework. (p. 139-140)

The authors don’t say why the fact that Americans have these beliefs hasn’t led to major national policy implementations. This is an intriguing question, and I don’t have a good answer. Is it because people say that they believe in something like creationism, but they really don’t? (This would be closely related to the recent discussion I had about whether people who say they believe in God really do believe.) Is it because the people who control the political power don’t have the same beliefs as the majority of Americans? Is it because the spirit of religious freedom in our country is such that people recognize that they shouldn’t politically impose their religious beliefs on others? Or is something else going on?

I’m reading an anti-intelligent design book currently, called Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design & the Easter Bunny. It’s meant to be an entertaining humorous book about the intelligent design debate, and sometimes it succeeds in doing so, but sometimes it just succeeds in being offensive. For example, Barrett Brown and Jon Alston, the authors, write that Senator Tom Coburn is

an Oklahoman who first gained national recognition after complaining about the rampant lesbianism that was allegedly occurring in his home state’s university bathrooms (yes, Oklahoma has both a university and bathrooms). (p. 30)

Later, in describing an 1928 anti-evolution law passed in Arkansas, they write:

In short: push evolution in a public capacity and you’ll never work in Arkansas again. This wasn’t much of a threat to anyone who’s ever had the opportunity to find themselves working in Arkansas… (p. 49-50)

I hope you agree that this is not particularly funny, and is based on all sorts of false stereotypes, and is pretty derogatory, discourteous, distasteful, and disrespectful (just to pick some “d” words). People in Oklahoma are about as educated as people from other states (see below for the statistics), and Oklahoma has some fine educational institutions. Arkansas is a beautiful state full of nice normal people. Perpetuating these stereotypes about Oklahoma and Arkansas just isn’t funny, and evidences the close-mindedness that many people accuse intelligent design opponents of having. And in addition to being prejudiced, it’s pragmatically stupid too — it’s not going to help get people from Oklahoma or Arkansas, or anyone who has reasonable opinions about Oklahoma and Arkansas, to be more sympathetic to the anti-intelligent design position that the authors are promulgating. 

The statistics:

According to page 3 of this 2000 US Census report, the percentage of the US population age 25 and over with at least a high school diploma is 80.4%, and the percentage of that population with at least a college diploma is 24.4%. For the Oklahoma population age 25 and over, those percentages are 80.6% and 20.3%. The state with the lowest percentage of college graduates is West Virginia, at 14.8%. (West Virginia, by the way, is one of my favorite states in the whole country — there’s more to a state than its percentage of college graduates.)

“God-of-the-gaps” arguments are arguments for the existence of God that are based on some sort of gap in our knowledge of the world. The are typically derided, because historically, the gaps in God-of-the-gaps arguments have gotten filled in as scientific inquiry advances. But as Ratzsch carefully points out, if the God-of-the-gaps arguments had any evidential strength before the gap was filled in, then they have at least some evidential strength after the gap is filled in:

if something would constitute evidence of design in the context of some presumed gap in nature, then it will also constitute evidence of design even if the gap in question gets closed naturally. (p. 59)

I won’t try to reproduce Ratzsch’s argument for that claim here; I’ll just encourage you to look at the book (Nature, Design, and Science) if you’re interested. If I were to argue for this claim, I’d give a Bayesian argument — if some hypothesis can account for some piece of evidence, and is confirmed by that evidence, then introduction of another hypothesis that can also confirm the evidence doesn’t stop the evidence from providing some confirmation for the first hypothesis, even though the degree of confirmation would go down.

An uninformed observer who came across a Mandelbrot set would presumably think that it was the product of an intelligent designer:

But in fact, the Mandelbrot set is the product of a relatively simple mathematical equation. Ratzsch addresses this in an interesting footnote:

prior to any familiarity to their mode of generation, it might be intuitively reasonable to take Mandelbrot pictures as designed. In fact, were their structure artifactual I suspect that we would so construe them. But, of course, their structure is a result of mathematical necessity, and some would argue that necessities cannot be products of agent activity and design. (p. 185)

I take it from what Ratzsch does say that he recognizes that he doesn’t have a completely satisfying answer here. What I would (tentatively) say is that the structure (despite appearances) is not complex — it can be generated via a simple mathematical process. Ratzsch wouldn’t be happy with this complexity answer — after all, as discussed in my previous post, a titanium cube is not complex, and yet Ratzsch takes it as evidence for design — but the complexity answer fits with the answer that for example Dembski would give. (Dembski’s filter wouldn’t infer design unless the pattern had specified complexity, but the Mandelbrot set is not complex. Dembski’s filter sometimes won’t infer design even when something is designed though, so from the fact that Dembski’s filter doesn’t infer design, we can’t infer that the pattern was not designed.)

I should note that, in practice, Mandelbrot sets are produced by designers — the people who wrote the computer program to produce them. What I’m interested in is if we (somehow) came across something like a Mandelbrot set in nature — say, in the pattern of a leaf. Would that pattern provide evidence for the existence of God?

To read more about these sorts of issues, see my new book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.

Del Ratzsch, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, published a great foundational book on design arguments back in 2001, and I’m just now getting around to reading it cover-to-cover. The book is called Nature, Design, and Science, and I recommend anyone interested in intelligent design arguments to check it out. Ratzsch is one of those philosophers who really deserves to be more famous than he is; he does solid insightful work. (And he’s a nice guy — he once told me (not completely seriously) that if only I’d convert, they’d be happy to hire me at Calvin.) 

Ratzsch gives good criteria outlining under what circumstances we would take some pattern or structure to be designed. I find his criteria plausible, but what’s interesting is that I find a couple of the particular examples that he mentions offhand of phenomena we’d take to be designed implausible. Here is one example:

if we discovered on Mars a perfect hundred-meter cube of isotopically uniform titanium, and knew that no human technology had that capability, identification of that cube as both artifact and alien would be relatively trivial. (p. 18)

In fact, this isn’t at all obvious to me. There are non-artifact cube-like objects that are found in nature (though, admittedly, they aren’t _perfectly_ cube-shaped). Consider, for example, pyrite:


One might initially think, if walking upon a heath and coming across a cube of pyrite, that that cube was an artifact produced by design. But in fact, that cube has the same status as any random rock one finds on the heath. Given the existence of pyrite cubes on Earth, I wouldn’t know what to think if I came across a titanium cube on Mars. 

Here’s another case where I disagree with Ratzsch’s particular example of what would count as design. Ratzsch says:

If there were processes which were only activated by energy beyond what any finite agency could generate — for example, infinite energy — such processes would thus constitute evidence that supernatural agency was involved.

Granted, Ratzsch just says that the process would “constitute evidence”, not that that process would constitute certain evidence, so perhaps I would agree with him, in that perhaps I would take such a process to constitute a tiny bit of evidence for supernatural agency. But I’m not even sure that I would do that. There are some aspects of the universe that physicists talk about, such as spacetime singularities and black holes and supertasks, where there are ways of looking at these aspects such that they involve infinities. Perhaps there are parts of the universe where the amount of energy is infinite. If I had to guess, I’d guess that that wasn’t the case, but if the physicists told me that that was the case, I don’t think I would take that as evidence for the existence of God; I’d just say that that’s another interesting fact that we’ve learned from physics.

However, I agree with Ratzsch’s overall point, that one can in principle get evidence for the existence of God. I argue for that a bit in this paper.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Elliott Sober’s paper “Intelligent Design Theory and the Supernatural — The ‘God or Extraterrestrials’ Reply”, because I had heard that in that paper he argues that ID is after all inherently supernatural, despite the attempts of ID proponents to formulate the doctrine of ID in such a way that it’s not inherently supernatural. (For what it’s worth, I think these attempts are successful — ID proponents can formulate the ID doctrine any way they like, and they can hence choose to formulate it in a way that the doctrine can come out true even if naturalism is true.) The “God or Extraterrestrials” part of the title refers to the idea that, if ID researchers discover that life on Earth was intelligently designed, we could attribute this to God, or we could attribute it to intelligent aliens that seeded life on earth (“directed panspermia”). 

Before having read the paper, I was trying to guess what Sober would argue. I didn’t expect him to give a Barbara Forrest-type argument, to the effect that ID proponents believe in the supernatural, and hence they’re just being disingenuous when they say that their doctrine isn’t inherently supernatural — Sober is a better philosopher than that. But I couldn’t come up with a much more plausible argument than that.

And indeed, Sober’s argument, while slightly more plausible, isn’t much more plausible. What Sober says is that if we believe some other theses in addition to the basic ID thesis, then we’ll end up being committed to the supernatural. Sober’s idea is that these other theses are supposed to be independently supported theses that we should find plausible. Here they are (sticking with Sober’s numbering from the key argument of the paper):

2. Some of the minds found in nature are irreducibly complex. 

4. Any mind in nature that designs and builds an irreducibly complex system is itself irreducibly complex.

6. The universe is finitely old. 

7. In nature, causes precede their effects.  

It would be an interesting result if the basic ID claim, in conjunction with these four theses, entailed that supernaturalism is true (even if these four theses aren’t in fact plausible). I don’t think Sober even establishes that result. I won’t argue that here; instead I just want to point out that I’m not convinced that any of these four theses is true.

First, I worry that talk of a “mind” being irreducibly complex is a category mistake. Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity applies to physical biological systems that have parts, but it’s not clear to me whether a mind is a physical biological system that has parts. (A brain certainly is, but Behe isn’t talking about a brain — his argument that a mind is irreducibly complex involves a picture with boxes labeled e.g. “Beliefs”, “Desires”, and “Intention”.)

Also, I’m not at all convinced that the universe is finitely old; I think this is just an open question in physics. I know that the Big Bang hypothesis implies that the universe is finitely old, but the Big Bang hypothesis comes out of classical general relativity, which doesn’t incorporate quantum effects. There are more sophisticated models, like Paul Steinhardt’s cyclic model, which are compatible with the universe having been in existence forever. 

And finally, I’m not convinced that causes precede their effects. There are models of general relativity where there are closed timelike curves, and the evidence doesn’t conclusively show that our universe doesn’t approximate such a model. It would certainly be surprising if life on Earth arose as a result of backwards time travel, but it would already be surprising if life on Earth were the product of an intelligent designer; the God hypotheses strikes me as about as plausible as the hypotheses that super-intelligent ancestors of ours will one day travel back in time to seed Earth. In other words, given that life on Earth is the product of an intelligent designer, I wouldn’t want to say that the doctrine of intelligent design is inherently supernatural; I’d be just as open to the idea that the doctrine of intelligent design is inherently postulating time travel.

Thomas Nagel has a paper in the Spring 2008 issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, entitled “Public Education and Intelligent Design”. In fact, most of the paper isn’t about public education, but is about intelligent design generally. Interestingly, he says at the beginning of the paper:

My aim is to address the constitutional issue, but first I want to discuss the relation between evolutionary theory and the despised alternative.

But in fact he spends most of the time on the latter project; the constitutional issues only come up at the very end.

Nagel is an atheist who is nevertheless expressing some sympathies to the arguments for intelligent design; in that sense we are on the same page. What surprised me most about the paper was the lack of citation to other literature — there’s not much Nagel says in here that’s new, and yet page after page of the journal article has no citations. I’m not in principle opposed to writing like that, but I am surprised that writing like that can get published in a major journal like Philosophy & Public Affairs. For example, Nagel argues against methodological naturalism, but he doesn’t consider the arguments of philosophers like Pennock, who argue for methodological naturalism. Now, I happen to think that Nagel is right and Pennock is wrong, but by not engaging with the published arguments at all, Nagel is setting himself up to look ignorant. And indeed, this is how for example Brian Leiter is portraying it, saying that Nagel has “jumped the shark”.

I recently came across the following claim in a philosophy PhD dissertation I’m an examiner for:

what is epistemically inaccessible to scientists cannot be part of science.

The claim was stated without argument, and it appears that the reader is supposed to take the claim as clearly true. But the claim strikes me as questionable. I don’t have a substitute claim to put in its place, and I don’t have any really definite opinions here, but I thought I’d record some thoughts. 

Are quarks epistemically accessible? Are events in the distant future epstemically accessible? Is the beginning of the universe (if there was one) epistemically accessible? Scientists make claims about such things, though it is clear that the epistemic accessibility we have to such things is (at best) more limited then the epistemic accessibility we have to everyday aspects in our lives.

What about modal claims? Arguably, modal claims are part of the everyday aspects of our lives – for example, when we say something like “if you were to touch that hot stove, it would hurt”. But it’s not clear how we have epistemic access to such modal claims. We can look at the world and see what does happen, but how can we look at the world and see what would happen, were such-and-such to be the case? 

Some who think that God exists think that God is directly epistemically accessible, through for example revelation, or some spiritual experience. But others who think that God exists think that God is only epistemically accessible via more tangential means. For example, they hold that the way to get evidence for the existence of God is by for example learning about the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of physics, or investigating the structure of a biological system and learning that it is irreducibly complex. How does that sort of limited epistemic accessibility compare to the epistemic accessibility we have to for example modal claims?

Some physicists seem to think that the only good reply to the fine-tuning argument for God is an appeal to many universes. If that’s right, that puts the fine-tuning argument on pretty strong ground. Leonard Susskind is a physicist who falls into this camp. He says:

If, for some unforseen reason, the landscape [i.e., the many-universes version of string theory] turns out to be inconsistent — maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation — I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. 

In fact, I think that the many-universes reply to the fine-tuning argument isn’t as strong as many people think, but there are other stronger ways of responding to the fine-tuning argument that don’t depend on there being many universes. For my defense of this, see my paper “God, Fine-Tuning, and the Problem of Old Evidence”. I wonder if Susskind has actually gone through the various other responses one could give to the fine-tuning argument, and concluded that they all are bad, and hence the many-universes reply is the only good one, or if Susskind has simply latched on to the many-universes reply, and hasn’t really thought about other responses.

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