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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Bilbo - #7153

March 18th 2010

Gregory: “a BioLogos perspective will lead us to search for rules of grammar within the genetic code.

Now you’ve got me curious.  I thought Biologos people were arguing that DNA is full of nonsense,  Now they’re saying it is governed by rules of grammar?


Gregory Arago - #7154

March 18th 2010

Please don’t attack me for my ignorance of genetics, Bilbo! = )

I didn’t even take a biology course in high school, though I’ve read more than the average person on it since then in studying ‘science.’

BioLogos aims “to better inform science education in a manner that respects the findings of science and is harmonious with the biblical message.”

If we can indeed ‘read’ the Language of God, then I see no reason why biologists and geneticists at or affiliated with BioLogos Foundation would not be “searching for rules of grammar within the genetic code.” That’s what philologians do! But then again, what do I know about these fields?

Where is Dennis Venema when you need him ... on the ‘readability’ of the genetic code?


Bilbo - #7156

March 18th 2010

Gregory: Please don’t attack me for my ignorance of genetics, Bilbo! = )

I’m just as ignorant as you are, Greg.  I’m just going by what the spokespeople here at Biologos say.  For example:

Karl Giberson: 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 “

” like our gene for making Vitamin C? .

They’re argument against ID is that much or most of DNA looks like nonsense.  If so, then exactly what rules of grammar is it that Biologos is supposed to find, and how would that help explain anything?


Bilbo - #7157

March 18th 2010

Let me contrast it with two teleological models:

1)  Mike Gene:  The original cells were intelligently designed to take advantage of the natural processes of evolution, in order to make the eventual appearance of multicellular life more probable.  Even though “nonsense” DNA such as Alu elements and introns do not code for anything, nevertheless they have played important roles in facilitating evolution.

2) Richard Sternberg:  Actually, I’m not sure what his model is, since he seems to be just spelling in out now.  My guess is that he thinks the non-coding DNA currently has an essential function in each organism, and I think he would downplay any role they might have had in evolution.

Who’s right?  I dunno’.  I followed Mike’s case at his blog, and it looks fairly plausible.  And I’m following Sternberg’s case, thought I’m not sure where he’s going. 

Either way, both see non-coding DNA as having purpose that a non-teleologist might miss.

Even though you don’t know much, do you have an idea what sort of approach Biologos is proposing?


Bilbo - #7158

March 18th 2010

Oops.  I should say that Mike would say that introns had and have a role in alternative splicing, resulting in the specialization of cells, which is essential to the evolution of and the existence of multicellularity.


Nick Matzke - #7162

March 18th 2010

“First, so far nobody has answered my question:  If we had known about the inner workings of the cell before Darwin, do you think that teleology would have been discarded from biology?”

No.  Darwin knew biology was really complex.  Explaining that complexity was one of his major points.  E.g. read his book on orchids.  Or what he actually thought of the complexity based on his understanding of heredity:

http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2008/07/what-critics-of.html

“We cannot fathom the marvellous complexity of an organic being; but on the hypothesis here advanced this complexity is much increased. Each living creature must be looked at as a microcosm – a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven. “


Bilbo - #7163

March 19th 2010

Nick: No.  Darwin knew biology was really complex.

Thanks for answering, Nick.  I know (thanks to Zachriel)  that Darwin thought the cell was complex.  I don’t think he had any idea how complex.  And even if he had been willing to abandon teleological explanations, I think other biologists would have demanded an explanation for what appeared to be extremely advanced nanotechnology of the cell.  My guess is that without such an explanation, they would have laughed him off.  But that’s only my opinion.


Nick Matzke - #7166

March 19th 2010

I dunno, unfathomable complexity sounds pretty complex to me, as does the idea that gametes contain self-propagating pangenes “inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven.”


Bilbo - #7189

March 19th 2010

Nick: I dunno, unfathomable complexity sounds pretty complex to me, as does the idea that gametes contain self-propagating pangenes “inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven.

Yes, but I don’t think Darwin understood what “self-propagating” entailed.  After Francis Crick describes the process of protein synthesis in his book, Life Itself, he says that anyone learning about this might think that it would take a miracle to make the cell. 

Now perhaps Darwin might have resisted invoking the miraculous, but I think, given that teleological explanations in biology were still acceptable in his age, that many, maybe even most biologists would have demanded a non-teleological explanation for the cell, before abandoning teleology.


Nick Matzke - #7215

March 20th 2010

If we really want to get into details, one might say that teleology actually wasn’t instantaneously dropped after Darwin, it had been holed beneath the waterline but took awhile to sink.  Things like neo-Lamarkianism, saltationism, and orthogenesis sometimes were given some teleological spins (and sometimes not, they could be promoted by materialists too), but were basically killed by the Modern Synthesis.

I think while Darwin was alive, people agreed the origin of life/the first species was a mystery, but they also often agreed with Darwin it was so far beyond the bounds of knowledge at the time that “one might as well speculate on the origin of matter.”


Gregory Arago - #7259

March 20th 2010

Nick, you’re missing many points now in your bid to reduce reality to material, physical and natural components. If you could point me to a place (published article or blog post) where you come out against ‘scientism,’ I’d really appreciate it. There simply *is* more out there, in the opinion of the majority of the human beings on the planet than matter and energy alone.

One of the key architects of the ‘modern synthesis’, T. Dobzhansky believed in/accepted ‘teleology.’ It is absurd to suggest that ‘teleology’ is ‘dead’ or was ‘killed.’ You’re mixing up ideology with fact, and confusing science with propaganda in saying this.

Are you saying “the origin of life/the first species” is *no longer* a mystery?!

I don’t find your presuppositions, i.e. those things which are required for actually ‘doing science,’ very convincing.


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