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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Gregory Arago - #6889

March 15th 2010

Hi Karl,

Re: #6885. Yes, I sure can: ‘information age.’

The word ‘information’ did not exist in Aristotle’s, Newton’s or Paley’s vocab. The ID people are exploiting the power of the term ‘information,’ just as is BioLogos, by focussing on the ‘language’ of God. Where does information come from? Is it created, evolved, emerged, Logossed, etc.?

A ‘naturalistic theist’ has no answer to ‘where, when or how,’ just as the IDist.

How does one get from non-information to information (ORIGINS) without mind/Mind? *Without an intelligence*, WHO would call the information by the name ‘information’?

Folks at BioLogos are attempting something new, even in the coining of the term ‘BioLogos’. Has it positive content or is it just anti-others?

As for Lakatos, Feyerabend et al. being ‘passe’, it is enough to show that *most* American scientists have not read and do not know them. This was addressed to someone else, Karl. My point about ‘sciences of the non-natural’ remains valid, surely you’d agree.

Thanks for the ref: to Franklin. Yes, I find Nancey Murphy provocative too.


RJS - #6896

March 15th 2010

Gregory Arago,

But biological “information” is a nebulous undefined concept that need not point to design. “Information age” is a cultural statement, not a biological one on any meaningful level.

Until or if an ID proponent can actually demonstrate any meaningful concept or “law” here it is just words.  This is really the problem, there is no progress.  There is an attempt to build a theory along the lines of statistical thermodynamics. But while stat-thermo is physically and mathematically rigorous - “conservation of information” has made no inroad.


hmm - #6897

March 15th 2010

Karl Giberson,

Does God Somehow Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

Can God ever be an explanation for anything?


karl Giberson - #6898

March 15th 2010

RJS:

Very nicely put!  I agree completely with your analogy to the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  That is a theory about information and it is a strong theory with a long tradition of generating new insights about the world.  ID has produced no such new theory about information.

hmm: It seems to me that we do not want to use God as one of several explanatory devices.  I don’t think God explains a complex and puzzling world. If he/she did we would not have the problem of evil.  God is, however, the “agent” responsible for, say, the resurrection of Jesus.  But I am not sure we can ever say that a miracle has been “explained.”


gangesa - #6899

March 15th 2010

There is information everywhere in everything.  Information theory is an attempt to narrow our field of view to whatever makes sense to us.

In India, Aryabhata about 1000 years before Copernicus and Nilakantha Somayaji about 150 years earlier had described a fairly elaborate helicentric model.  This went well beyond the work of Aristarchus.  Nilakantha also proposed elliptical orbits for the planets about the sun.


Nick Matzke - #6905

March 15th 2010

“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?”

I always find it puzzling when people pull out this dodge, as if they’d never heard the word “supernatural” before—typically these are the very people arguing for putting the supernatural in science!  It’s crystal clear what we are talking about—“God did it” as an explanation, i.e. a miracle.  Don’t dodge, you should own up to it and be proud that this is what you are arguing for—that, or stop complaining that mainstream, day-to-day science is horribly infected with “materialist”, “atheist” bias, and instead admit that day-to-day science, like history, law, mining, etc., is appropriately excluding the supernatural not because we can prove the supernatural is unreal, but because long experience has shown that studying/relying on natural processes produces results, and invoking supernatural processes is useless or worse, turns useful inquiries into sectarian disputes.


Nick Matzke - #6906

March 16th 2010

“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?”

Ah, finally, a proposal of your positive view, instead of just complaining about the anti-supernaturalist bias of mainstream science!  Answer: sure, God can ask how God wants, but this is a completely vague and unconstrained hypothesis (God’s powers are unlimited, and his motives are completely unknown, i.e. “God act[s] how he wants”).  Therefore it produces no empirical expectations, then there is no way for us to tell if some divine action has occurred.  Which is why I asked you for some empirical criteria for how we scientists can tell when miracles have occurred and when they haven’t in natural history.  You were unable to supply any, ergo scientists have no tools with which to study the supernatural, ergo the exclusion of the supernatural from science is not atheist or materialist bias, it’s just being practical and not wasting time with untestable hypotheses.


Nick Matzke - #6907

March 16th 2010

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

That’s fine, neither do I.  But you seem to be annoyed that scientists don’t worship your particular theological view of God as a regular intervener in natural processes while they’re doing science.  You seem to think every paper in _Science_ or _Nature_ should have a paragraph that says “these natural processes explain X, but it’s always possible that God did X miraculously through his miracle power because God felt like it that day.”


Nick Matzke - #6908

March 16th 2010

“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.”

Mike, this is one of your favorite talking points, but it doesn’t really hold up.  All science really needs is a testable, constrained hypothesis.  This could be derived from prior knowledge of the designer, but it could also be pulled from thin air or from some intuition based on observed data.  The hypothesis, wherever it came from, would then be tested against further data.  This kind of method is how science learns new things, we don’t always start with knowledge, sometimes we just make a guess and test it.


Nick Matzke - #6909

March 16th 2010

However, the problem is that ID hypotheses are typically nothing more than “IDdidit”, with no constraints whatsoever (including even the minimal constraint that natural laws like conservation of mass and energy are observed).  The exceptions are always actually about specific designers like humans, which have lots of constraints, or SETI, where humanlike constraints (speed of light etc.) are assumed in order to produce something empirically testable.


Nick Matzke - #6910

March 16th 2010

“How does one get from non-information to information (ORIGINS) without mind/Mind? *Without an intelligence*, WHO would call the information by the name ‘information’?”

By producing small amounts of information through chance, and saving the useful information through selection.  Next question.

P.S.: If you disagree, please provide a non-question begging definition of “information”, preferably a definition that is scientifically operational such that any of us can apply the definition and determine which things have it, how much they have, etc.


gangesa - #6912

March 16th 2010

Mike,

Scientists stopped considering design a long while ago because no hypothesis about a designer and his (yes it is his we know) methods holds up.  Now what are those ascientific methods that help you conclude it is a designer?  Ascientific is A as in Asin - an Indian-Malayali Catholic actress who is named A-Sin with the A coming from Sanskrit to indicate without (Sin) or blemishless.  A is not as in Non. It is as in Sanskrit which is used to refer to an entity that is not necessarily opposite but very clearly different.  “A” fine distinction - no Pun!
Mods I do have a sense of humour and am very civil, well travelled too!


Mike Gene - #6925

March 16th 2010

Hi Nick,

Mike, this is one of your favorite talking points, but it doesn’t really hold up.

It’s not a “talking point.”  It is an insight that logically follows from what Gordon wrote: “we know nothing about the designer or how it works.  So the explanation is useless in a scientific sense.”  Over the years, I have seen many a scientist make essentially the same claim.  And actually, I happen to agree with it.


Mike Gene - #6926

March 16th 2010

Nick:

All science really needs is a testable, constrained hypothesis. This could be derived from prior knowledge of the designer, but it could also be pulled from thin air or from some intuition based on observed data.  The hypothesis, wherever it came from, would then be tested against further data. This kind of method is how science learns new things, we don’t always start with knowledge, sometimes we just make a guess and test it.

Whoa.  So after all these years, it turns out you agree with my criticisms of designer-centrism?  In fact, you go further than me and get closer to the DI position than me in arguing that science does not require independent knowledge of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design.  Yes, I know you part company with the DI on the constraint thing, but let’s first pause to consider places of agreement.  Would other scientists and scholars at the NCSE likewise be willing to go on record as to not requiring such information about the designer in order to infer design?


Mike Gene - #6927

March 16th 2010

cont..

The problem, Nick, is that you’ve merely expressed your own opinion.  And I’m sure there are others who share the opinion (they might even speak up to support you).  But as I noted, over the years I have seen, first hand, too many scientists claim we do need such information about the designers before any such proposal/hypothesis can be deemed scientific (or do you think that demand is specific to Gordon alone?).  So who is right?


Mike Gene - #6928

March 16th 2010

Nick,

Let’s get this thread back to the topic of Karl’s posting, as you seem to be in some serious conflict with his argument above.  If “all science really needs is a testable, constrained hypothesis” that “could be derived from prior knowledge of the designer, but it could also be pulled from thin air or from some intuition based on observed data,” then how does that square with Karl’s objections?  For example:

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…...We are trying to explain something relatively simple in terms of something very complicated.

It would seem to me that a new piece of knowledge about biology, generated from some intuition inspired by intelligent design, doesn’t in anyway answer Karl’s objection here.


Mike Gene - #6930

March 16th 2010

Or what about this?

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….And, how exactly, did our agent produce the strings in question? Dozens of additional questions arise.

It would seem to me that a new piece of knowledge about biology, generated from some intuition inspired by intelligent design, doesn’t in anyway answer Karl’s explanation for why it is that scientists don’t consider design here. 

So what gives?


Mike Gene - #6931

March 16th 2010

Finally, let’s all step back and survey.  Admittedly, my position may cause discomfort for those who flirt with scientism, but at least it is clear, simple, well-supported, and logical.  In fact, since this is the BioLogos forum, it would seem that those who disagree with my point about science being unable to determine whether or not life/evolution was designed (since we don’t have the needed information about the designer) might have to thread a rather fine needle and I’d like to see this done.  Here’s the needle.  First, it’s safe to assume that most people around here equate the designer of ID with God. Okey dokey. Let’s go from there.  Now, if we can agree with the BioLogos/NCSE position that science is unable to determine whether or not God exists, then how is it that the same science can determine whether or not God designed?  It would seem to me that the only people who would have a problem with my point are a) those who are in the ID movement or b) the New Atheist movement.  That’s because both want science as their ally in the culture war.  And it would likewise seem to me that my point should be no problem for those who are theistic evolutionists or who subscribe to BioLogos.


Mike Gene - #6932

March 16th 2010

Hi Gangesa,

Scientists stopped considering design a long while ago because no hypothesis about a designer and his (yes it is his we know) methods holds up.

Everyone has their view about the past.  The bottom line is that yes, scientists have stopped considering design a long while ago.  Philosophy and history of science really don’t matter here; only the sociology of science matters.  So the only thing important is that we can agree if you are considering design in biology today, you are not doing science. Or as Douglas Futuyma writes in his new edition of Evolution, “the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology.” Or as Jerry Coyne noted, “But any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required.” And “If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.”


Mike Gene - #6933

March 16th 2010

cont…

Now what are those ascientific methods that help you conclude it is a designer?

Very good.  Ascientific sounds good to me.  Keep in mind that with an ascientific approach, it would be unreasonable to complain that it was not scientific. That would be like complaining there are no touchdowns in baseball!  Or expecting me to wear a suit and tie to the beach. 

But the “conclude” bit misses the boat.  It’s not a matter of concluding.  It’s a matter of investigating one’s suspicion and getting that important subjective feeling Karl wrote about in science (but need not be in science), the sense of drilling down on something.  If you are truly serious in your curiosity, it would probably be best to begin with a very simple, 6-word question.


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