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Does Intelligent Design Really Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

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March 15, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Does Intelligent Design Really Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

Science seeks to explain the world. While philosophers have developed elaborate criteria for what constitutes an explanation without coming to a consensus, it has always seemed to me that a good scientific explanation has two primary characteristics:

  1. Complicated things are explained in terms of simpler things that are easier to understand or, more commonly, are already understood.
  2. Psychological puzzlement is reduced when an explanation is provided. There may still be puzzlement, but it should be either reduced, or relocated to some other unrelated phenomena.

These general considerations may explain why so few scientists are attracted to the explanations provided by the intelligent design movement. When an intelligent cause is offered as the “explanation” for certain phenomena, the explanation is more complicated than the phenomena. For example, if certain information-rich strings of DNA were assembled by an intelligence intervening from “outside,” that intelligent agent would be way more complicated than the string of DNA. We have greatly complicated our “system” by adding this designer to the mix of things that have to be organized into an explanation. We are trying to explain something relatively simple in terms of something very complicated.

The oft-used example of Mount Rushmore being the product of an intelligent agency is misleading. We can certainly detect that it is designed and we know that we must invoke intelligent—in this case human—designers to account for it. But our understanding of human behavior has been developed and refined over millennia. We take for granted that the patterns that make up the faces on Mount Rushmore pre-exist in the minds of the artists who did the work. Our “explanation” is really nothing more than a statement that a pattern has been transferred from the minds of the designers to the side of the mountain.

It seems to me that this winsome example conflates cause with explanation. Very little is truly “explained” by saying that a pattern has moved from one place to another.

A different example makes this point clearer. Suppose you find your friend with a bullet hole in his head and you wonder if this was a stray bullet or an assassination. You find a video recording and discover that there clearly was an assassin. So the death was “intelligently designed.” But is the assassin on the video the “explanation” for the death or simply the “cause”? Unlike the Mount Rushmore example, we lack a ready-made explanation for why an assassin would kill your friend. The identification of intelligent cause does not explain the phenomena at all.

The problem of puzzlement is similar. If we say that an intelligent agent has produced certain strings of DNA, are we more or less puzzled by the problem of DNA when we are all done? Frankly, I am more puzzled after hearing this claim. This “explanation” generates a set of questions even more troubling than our original query about how information-rich strings of DNA came to be. For example, what about DNA strings that look like gibberish? Why did our intelligent agent produce an information-rich string and sandwich it between two pieces of nonsense? Why do so many pieces of DNA look “broken” like our gene for making Vitamin C? And, how exactly, did our agent produce the strings in question? Dozens of additional questions arise.

Puzzlement is increased, not decreased by invoking an intelligent agent to explain natural phenomena. Scientists will thus not feel like they are making progress with this line of investigation.

Neither of these two key points can be formulated into a rigorous demarcation argument that neatly divides good scientific explanations from bad ones. French physicists, following Descartes, opposed Newton’s theory of gravity for decades. They thought the claim that bodies could reach across empty space and pull on each other so ridiculous—so puzzling—that they championed an alternative theory. In 1700 it would have been hard to resolve this question to everyone’s satisfaction. But the Newtonian effort had a vitality that carried it steadily forward until eventually the French alternative passed into the dustbin of history.

Complexity and simplicity are not as simple as they appear, however, so applying such criteria is far from trivial. Complexity does not, for example, have anything to do with how hard an explanation is to understand. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is harder to understand than the ideas of Newton that it replaced, but this is not because it is more elaborate or more complex. The challenges of understanding relativity come entirely from the associated mathematical equations that are harder to solve. There is a useful comparison with language here.

Imagine that all recipes for making cookies were written in Chinese and all recipes for making cakes were written in English. English speakers would find cookie recipes hard to understand; Chinese speakers would find cake recipes harder to understand, although their enthusiasm for bilingualism would certainly be helpful. The complexity of an explanation has to do with its “moving parts.” How many different components? How many time intervals have to be measured? How many subtle interactions have to be tracked? Is the history of the system relevant? How many interlocking phenomena have to be noted and related to each other? Regardless of the languages in which they were written, we would all agree that recipes for cake are more complex than recipes for chocolate milk.

The question of puzzlement is also complicated. What does it mean to say that “puzzlement is reduced” and how large a reduction is required for that process to be considered meaningful? One of the most puzzling features of the natural world, that perplexed astronomers for 2000 years, was the observation that the planets occasionally moved “backward” in the sky, executing what looked like loop-de-loops. Various complicated explanations were provided, the last one being that of Copernicus in his landmark book in 1543. Copernicus solved the problem by suggesting that the earth moved around the sun and the apparent backward motion of the planets was just an optical illusion created when the earth passed other planets in its orbit about the sun.

Copernicus’s breakthrough was not immediately hailed as a great explanation, however, because so many questions were raised by his claim that the earth moves. Many people were quite troubled by the claim that the earth was hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds without so much as a breeze or wobble. This seemed far more puzzling than the loop-de-loop motions of the planets. It was not until Galileo worked out the physics of a moving earth, and Newton showed how gravity could keep the earth in a stable orbit, that the new Copernican system seemed less puzzling.

Concepts like complexity and puzzlement are imprecise—clear in a general sense, but foggy around the edges. There is room for disagreement. And this is why it is so important to appreciate that science is a communal enterprise. A group of experts needs to brainstorm, argue, and even quarrel about explanations to make sure they are adequate. One of the greatest strengths of science is the way that skeptical critique has been built into the process. Many scientific ideas are stillborn because skeptics make demands that cannot be met and the futility of those ideas is quickly exposed.

Scientific progress has a certain “feel” to it and anyone who has spent time in a research group knows that feeling. There is a shared intuition that explanations are “drilling down” to ever more fundamental levels of reality. DNA is explained in terms of molecules; molecules are explained in terms of atoms; atoms are explained in terms of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are explained in terms of quarks. Puzzlement drives the enterprise but it seems to gradually and steadily reduce over time. Astronomers no longer fret over the many things that puzzled Copernicus.

Intelligent design does not “feel” scientific. It may not be the “science stopper” that some of its critics claim, but it seems to lack explanatory momentum. After nearly two decades of energetic exploration it seems to me that it should be going somewhere. We should be able to see how the initial ideas led to explanations that identified new questions and how those questions provoked investigations that uncovered ever more adequate explanations. The world should seem less puzzling now than it did.

But none of these things have happened, which explains why the initial goals of the Intelligent Design Movement have not been met, why the scientific community is paying no attention, and why Christians looking to understand the Creation should be skeptical.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Gordon J. Glover - #6854

March 15th 2010

Nice one Karl.

It’s funny, but years ago when the “face on Mars” was discovered, the initial reaction from the scientific community was that it was a purely natural phenomenon with only the appearence of design.  Of course, alien entheusiasts where thrilled because such an “intelligently designed” feature needed a designer, and their beloved aliens fit the bill nicely.

The differences between the faces on Mt. Ruchmore and the face on Mars are many.  Further investigation of the Martian version revealed that it was indeed a fortuitous casting of shadows at the precise moment the picture was taken, and the underlying structure was simply a random pile of rubble.  But I imagine even a die-hard alien entheusiasts would protest: “how intelligent these aliens were to have arranged a pile of rocks, just so the shadows cast would produce a human face as our cameras passed by!”  How do you argue with that?

But the reason the scientific community was skeptical of the “design” hypothesis was probably similar to why they are skeptical of ID—we know nothing about the designer or how it works.  So the explanation is useless in a scientific sense.


Glen Davidson - #6858

March 15th 2010

I don’t think that making things simpler is particularly the point of science.  A crude stone “tool” might be very simply explained by various weathering processes, or the full explanation might be highly complex as being due to H. erectus.  Yet the “design explanation” may easily be the best one.

It sort of depends on how complex you really want to get.  In one sense, if the evidence told us that the world was quixotic and unpredictable, yet oddly beneficent and purposeful, we’d have a likely explanation in some kind of mind.  That’s a simple explanation (it gives us an adequate cause), but is far from being a full explanation.  However, it may be the best explanation that we will ever have, hypothetically.

And in archaeology, while the “how” of the pyramids is not unimportant, saying that the Egyptians made them seemed mostly adequate to sound archaeologists.  You don’t necessarily have to be able to explain the complexities to have a pretty good explanation in humans, simply because humans are quite able to create complex and rationally-produced objects and systems.

The problem for ID is that it lacks actual expectations of design, like rationality and foresight.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Paul - #6859

March 15th 2010

I just find it very hard to take Intelligent Design seriously. As expressed here, it just doesn’t seem to have “gone anywhere.” I look at the statement that “certain aspects of the natural world are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause rather than undirected natural processes” (ID advocates are very touchy about it being referred to as the idea that things are “too complex” or something similar) and find myself wondering in what ways this could be scientific. I just don’t see what follows from this. The best anybody could ever do, in my opinion, would be to demonstrate that known natural mechanisms are inadequate to produce a given phenomena, but does that warrant the “design inference?” Or should the scientific position in such circumstances simply be “we don’t know.”


Paul - #6860

March 15th 2010

...

Despite ID’s insistence that it has no links with creationism, I still look at their writings on recent genomics data and feel that they are strikingly similar to those from creationist organisations. This was amply demonstrated in Stephen Meyer’s recent article posted here on Biologos. It really has to be emphasized that if humans and chimps don’t share common ancestors (something many ID advocates are still obviously trying to deny) then really not many organisms on the planet do. To hold to such a position consistently there would have had to have been almost endless separate creation events throughout earth’s history, assuming we accept an old earth (something many ID advocates are likewise unwilling to officially commit to).


Charlie - #6864

March 15th 2010

Well written Gordon.  Do you agree then that religion and science go about reaching conclusions very differently?  Biologos says they are against ID but is not stating God put the wheels in motion, ID?  We don’t know how the universe or life came to be, we don’t know how the physical and chemical constants were “set”, so God must have done it?  That, to me, is ID.


Gregory Arago - #6865

March 15th 2010

It may be that the most ‘intelligent design theory’ can ask for is to be ‘suggestive.’ That is, ID is as powerful (or weak) as it is because of its ‘implications.’

Even if the designer/Designer can’t be identified as such, the implication is that there is one/One or many/Many.

The same can be said of ‘theistic evolutionism’ or ‘evolutionary creationism’. “Even if God can’t be identified” for/with God’s divine action in the world, the implication is that God exists.

Sure, ID is no Copernican contribution to science. At most it may serve as transition to something new that actually does someday contribute much to our understanding of the natural, social, cultural, ethical, political and religious worlds that we inhabit.

Let us not hide from the fact, however, that in offering something new, the IDM has shown bravery to combat the materialistic/atheistic ground rules of modern and late-modern natural-physical sciences and sometimes even human-social sciences.

‘Intelligence’ cannot be ‘reduced’ to natural-physical characteristics alone.

The term ‘BioLogos’ is a late-modern, even post-modern contribution to ‘sciences.’ What will be its legacy?


Nick Matzke - #6867

March 15th 2010

Gregory—you talk a lot about this, but how do you actually propose that we include the supernatural in science?  What are the objective criteria by which we can rule miracles in or out as an explanation in any particular instance?  Once you let in miracles, what keeps people from invoking a miracle for any unexplained phenomenon?

These are very old questions, and they have never been answered by supernaturalists complaining about science, and until you or someone does come up with some good answers, science will continue to be about the natural and not the supernatural.


Gregory Arago - #6869

March 15th 2010

Thanks for your attention, Nick.

Have you read Lakatos and Feyerabend (plus Popper and Kuhn)? Have you read Rickert and Dilthey? These people have shown there are ‘many sciences’. Therefore, ‘science’ is not limited to ‘natural’ things only. Only ‘naturalists’ suggest such a definition.

I’m glad you suggest the reality of miracles, Nick. But I’m not saying we should include them in our scientific conclusions. It is enough for you to admit that religious faith is something significant in people’s lives and that if human beings *are* created in the image of God, then all of the denial of this in the world won’t change the *fact.*

Btw, I didn’t use the word ‘supernatural’. You dichotomized ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. But what does ‘supernatural’ mean? Isn’t it just ‘natural’ with something extra? A super-size with fries?

“The youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires.” - Emerson


Gordon J. Glover - #6870

March 15th 2010

Charlie said, “We don’t know how the universe or life came to be, we don’t know how the physical and chemical constants were “set”, so God must have done it?  That, to me, is ID.”

Indeed—from a disteleological perspective, there is little difference between the ID and TE/EC perspectives.  For instance, when a popular atheist blog posted my “Design Detective” cartoon, they billed it as “creationism lite” since my characters where theists.  So I completely understand your sentiments. 

TE/EC’s say that God acted directly to create the cosmos and the fine tune the constants of nature; and IDist’s say that God did that, but he also had to do some other stuff because the constants weren’t so “fine tuned” after all.  The former makes theism compatible with origins research (multiverses notwithstanding).  The latter continually puts divine creation at odds with scientific methodology.  IMHO, that’s the difference.


Mike Gene - #6871

March 15th 2010

Once again, I guess I have to play the wet blanket role and remind people that there are lots of different definitions for words like ‘science,’ ‘scientific,’ and ‘intelligent design.’ Interestingly enough, Karl ties science to a subjective experience:

Scientific progress has a certain “feel” to it and anyone who has spent time in a research group knows that feeling. There is a shared intuition that explanations are “drilling down” to ever more fundamental levels of reality.

But that feeling and intuition is universally shared by all humans and is not in any way dependent on doing science.  A detective will have the same feeling when drilling down on a suspect.  A journalist might have the same feeling when drilling down on a good story.  A chef might have the same feeling when drilling down on a good recipe.  A therapist might have the same feeling when drilling down on a mode of therapy with regard to a particular patient.


Gregory Arago - #6872

March 15th 2010

“TE/EC’s say that God acted directly to create the cosmos and the fine tune the constants of nature; and IDist’s say that God did that, but he also had to do some other stuff because the constants weren’t so “fine tuned” after all.” - Gordon

The former sounds more like deism than theism. Set the universe in motion then let it play w/out intervening.

I’m not so sure that IDists involve compulsion as you suggest, Gordon. Saying God “had to do some other stuff” seems rather forceful. But then again, I’m not an IDist (& neither is Mike Gene).

As you know, IDists, along with TEs *and* ECs (these are not the same, Gordon, though you conflate them), appeal to ‘fine tuning’ & ‘anthropic principle.’ Who finds ‘fine tuning’ problematic, aside from atheists and agnostics?

It seems unnecessary to say that ‘divine action’ absolutely *must* be ‘at odds’ with methods that scientists use (or ‘scientific methodology’, in your words). Can’t God act how God wants & we ‘mere’ humans be faced with ‘studying’ whatever effects of divine action might be here?

I don’t really care if studying reality is called ‘science’ or not; I do not worship Science.


Mike Gene - #6873

March 15th 2010

Hi Gordon,

Your point about the Face on Mars is a good one.  But we can take it a step further with a simple, thought-provoking question as asked here.

But the reason the scientific community was skeptical of the “design” hypothesis was probably similar to why they are skeptical of ID—we know nothing about the designer or how it works.  So the explanation is useless in a scientific sense.

Sure, but let’s not stop there.  You are pointing out a key limitation of science – in order for science to detect design, it requires independent information about the designer or how it works.  Without that information, science is blind to the possibility of design, meaning that if life and/or evolution was designed, science could not detect it.


RBH - #6874

March 15th 2010

Gregory asked Nick

Have you read Lakatos and Feyerabend (plus Popper and Kuhn)? Have you read Rickert and Dilthey? These people have shown there are ‘many sciences’. Therefore, ‘science’ is not limited to ‘natural’ things only. Only ‘naturalists’ suggest such a definition.

I read Lakatos and Feyerabend and Popper and Kuhn in graduate school back in the 1960s, and to my knowledge/memory none of the “many sciences” you impute to them included magic worked by an undetectable supernatural agency.

Gregory wrote further

It is enough for you to admit that religious faith is something significant in people’s lives and that if human beings *are* created in the image of God, then all of the denial of this in the world won’t change the *fact.*

Sure.  And if invisible cows flew on gossamer wings and they were created in the image of butterflies then all the denial of this in the world won’t change the fact.

It’s transparently obvious that religious faith is an important part of many people’s lives.  That tells us precisely nothing about the existence, or lack thereof, of any supernatural agencies.  It tells us only about the psychology of those people.


Charlie - #6876

March 15th 2010

Well, both TE/EC and IDists are then assuming there are irreducibly complex systems.


Mike Gene - #6878

March 15th 2010

Hi Nick,

These are very old questions, and they have never been answered by supernaturalists complaining about science, and until you or someone does come up with some good answers, science will continue to be about the natural and not the supernatural.

I agree with your position here, but it’s not just about supernaturalists complaining about science.  New Atheists like Dawkins and Coyne make the same basic argument.  They present themselves to the public as scientists and teach them that science could (oh yes it could!) include the supernatural/miracles, “if only there was evidence.”  But alas, there is no such “evidence.”  Coyne spelled out what such “scientific evidence” would look like – if he and some other scientists personally saw a 900-foot-tall Jesus.


Gregory Arago - #6880

March 15th 2010

Charlie,

We are finally in agreement. TEs, ECs and IDists *all* believe that the universe, the world, reality itself, are ‘irreducibly complex’ in the sense that they couldn’t have simply arisen by some ‘naturalistic’ (read: non-theistic) chance process without Intelligent origins, what most people call the divine.

When it comes to ‘systems’ there are always higher and lower levels until one comes to the borders or boundaries.

“Man [sic] has no business with the simplicity or complexity of things.” - Pablo Neruda

Those who profess ‘scientism’ and ‘naturalism’ often don’t like to consider that ‘reality’ actually *can* exist beyond the only borders and boundaries within which they feel comfortable.

Asking a person such as this, i.e. a western, hyper-rational, narrow specialist, to consider faith, religion, spirituality, transcendence, etc. can seem a daunting task.

“Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” - Pascal


Charlie - #6881

March 15th 2010

So now my question is, for the things science cannot explain, why is it good to have faith in an answer that is not (or cannot) be answered by science?  Can’t this be too personalized (in that no two people will ever agree on explanations that they derived from their faith)?  It is with this inevitable disagreement, that conflict has, does, and probably will continue to arise.

Also, my question is specific towards faith alone, not religion (because I understand morals can be bound to religion in addition to faith).


Karl Giberson - #6885

March 15th 2010

Gregory:

You say “in offering something new, the IDM has shown bravery to combat the materialistic/atheistic ground rules of modern and late-modern natural-physical sciences and sometimes even human-social sciences..:

What are you thinking is “new”?  Can you give me some examples of how ID is different that the natural theology arguments of Paley, or Newton, or even Aristotle?

Karl


Mike Gene - #6886

March 15th 2010

Hi Charlie,

It is with this inevitable disagreement, that conflict has, does, and probably will continue to arise.

Conflict and disagreement are part of human nature, Charlie.  After all, consider the atheist community.  It places great pride on its devotion to science, reason, and evidence and strongly criticizes faith.  Yet the atheists are constantly fighting with each other.  For example, did you hear about what happened at Richard Dawkins web page?  A huge fight erupted that resulted in the forum being suspended and people’s accounts being purged.  Why?  Because they couldn’t agree on the best way to run an internet forum .  Reason, evidence, and science all failed them.


karl Giberson - #6887

March 15th 2010

Gregory:

You write “Have you read Lakatos and Feyerabend (plus Popper and Kuhn)? Have you read Rickert and Dilthey? These people have shown there are ‘many sciences’. Therefore, ‘science’ is not limited to ‘natural’ things only. Only ‘naturalists’ suggest such a definition.”

Most of these guys are pretty passe now.  Read Franklin’s new book: “What Science Knows and how it Knows it” for a good skewering of these guys.  The problem with philosophers of science is that they rarely come up with descriptions of science that sound right to scientists.  Lakatos is an exception for me. I do like him, especially as updated by Nancey Murphy.

If a “philospher of baseball” came up with a description of the game that did not


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